Inflamed Rhetoric Is Pushing Region to the Brink of Disaster

      August 10, 2017 13:28

      The U.S. and North Korea have been exchanging increasingly heated verbal barbs in recent days. What seems to have triggered the trading of florid threats was a report by the Washington Post that U.S. intelligence officials believe that the North has succeeded in developing a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

      U.S. President Donald Trump was irate. "North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen," he said, in remarks that echo the worst of North Korean propaganda. North Korea shot back by threatening to fire medium-to-long range ballistic missiles at Guam, which is home to strategically important U.S. Air Force and Navy bases. It is unnerving to see North Korea mention specific targets it intends to strike.

      Even if there is only a small chance of war breaking out immediately, nothing seems impossible now that Trump is in office and North Korea has crossed the "red line" laid down by Seoul and Washington that could trigger a military response.

      Eleven years have passed since North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. It usually takes many years to develop a nuclear warhead small enough to mount on an ICBM, and if the North has succeeded in that feat, the only thing left is to develop the technology to allow its ICBMs to re-enter the atmosphere without burning up after being fired in an elliptical trajectory. The U.S. and Japan believe North Korea will have that technology by next year, and catastrophe is looming.

      As the situation spirals out of control, the South Korean government is just about invisible. It took President Moon Jae-in six days after the North launched an ICBM to speak with Trump about a response. And even if the two speak, Trump does not seem interested in engaging in sincere discussions with him. Seoul is sidelined as crisis unfolds on its doorstep.

      But what can be done? South Korea must closely monitor North Korean military activities and bolster cooperation with the U.S. It must be able to have a say in any move envisioned by the U.S. But that seems to be a tall order at the moment. Former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger has already proposed pulling American troops out of South Korea if that would persuade China to get North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons.

      Moon confessed recently that South Korea "cannot resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff or achieve global consensus on it on its own." That is the reality the country faces. But it cannot simply mean sitting on his hands and doing nothing. The president has a responsibility to defend his people. Moon must reconsider his pointless rapprochement efforts to the North and do some serious thinking about where South Korea should be headed. This is a real emergency, so all options, even those considered unthinkable so far, must be on the table.

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