Making Trouble in the Alliance Is Unhelpful at This Point

      June 19, 2017 13:30

      President Moon Jae-in's special adviser for security and foreign affairs, Moon Chung-in, put his foot firmly in his mouth during a visit to Washington ahead of the Korea-U.S. summit. He told South Korean correspondents there that joint military exercises with the U.S. should be scaled down, and questioned why American aircraft carriers and nuclear bombers should be deployed on the Korean Peninsula.

      He also suggested that if controversy over the deployment of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery here in southwestern Korea is an alliance-breaker, then the alliance does not deserve the name. He added that his comments are his own views, but it "would not be wrong" to say that the president agrees with him.

      Moon Chung-in probably made the comments in a bid to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. But the U.S. State Department was peeved, saying it views his comments as his "personal opinion" and probably not the official stance of the Moon Jae-in administration.

      The adviser's comments seem to echo China's mantra that the U.S. must also take responsibility along with North Korea for the nuclear standoff. China too has urged South Korea and the U.S. to halt their massive joint drills so North Korea can stop its nuclear and missile programs.

      The U.S. deployed two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and several strategic bombers around the Korean Peninsula to respond to repeated provocations by North Korea. The North conducted two nuclear tests last year and fired a ballistic missile every week since President Moon took office in May. The UN Security Council took the unusual step of adopting three consecutive resolutions against the North over the last 15 months.

      Under these circumstances, it is not just inappropriate but foolish to twitter dovishly about getting rid of strategic U.S. weapons and scaling down joint military exercises, which are the only serious bargaining chips currently available. These options should be considered only after Pyongyang has taken irreversible steps to scrap its nuclear and missile programs. In the past, South Korea and the U.S. have halted the "Team Spirit" joint exercises after North Korea agreed to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. But the net result of that agreement is a huge North Korean nuclear arsenal.

      Even if North Korea halts its provocations, the nuclear and missile threats do not simply disappear. Far from it. The North is nearing the development of a miniaturized nuclear warhead and already has a wide range of ballistic missiles capable of hitting key U.S. installations in the region as well as all over South Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would surely be surprised if the South simply jettisons key defensive options while that North's fundamental threat still exists. Begging for talks will merely lead to more demands from North Kore, followed at best by empty promises.

      And in fact the U.S. has never said it will not hold talks with North Korea unless it scraps its nuclear weapons. Rather, it said it will not hold talks unless it is understood that the scrapping of the nuclear program is the aim. Of course the Seoul-Washington alliance will not be destroyed because of THAAD, but cracks are likely to form at a time when Seoul can least afford them.

      Moon Chung-in was appointed special adviser after being mooted for the posts of foreign minister and chief secretary for national security at Cheong Wa Dae. A former tutor to President Moon's mentor Roh Moo-hyun, he wields tremendous influence over the president's foreign policy thinking.

      For now, Cheong Wa Dae brushed off his comments as his personal opinion, but there are widespread views that those views are shared by Cheong Wa Dae. If not, he would probably not have made the comments publicly.

      Already President Moon said in a speech marking the 17th anniversary of the historic inter-Korean summit that Seoul is willing to engage the North in dialogue without conditions if it merely stops its nuclear and missile provocations. That weakens the entire approach to dealing with the nuclear crisis.

      The Seoul-Washington summit is just around the corner, and already it looks fraught with difficulties. Clear differences in views are emerging. Unless both sides exercise modicum of wisdom, a security disaster could be in the works. Certainly any special adviser to the president needs to watch his mouth at a time like this.

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