February 23, 2023
SEOUL – Military tensions on the Korean Peninsula have sharply risen to a dangerous level as North Korea launched the Hwasong-15 missile, one of the intercontinental ballistic missiles, on Feb. 18. North Korea’s launch of long-range ballistic missiles was a severe provocation against international norms and order, as the UN Security Council’s resolutions on North Korea prohibit. Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and deputy department director of the Workers’ Party of Korea, made statements for two consecutive days, threatening “the Pacific Ocean will be a ballistic missile firing range for the North.” Meanwhile, as the South and the US are scheduled to conduct a massive military exercise in March, rising military tensions on the Korean Peninsula are an accomplished fact.
The escalation of tensions is a very problematic development in that it is a serious obstacle to peace and prosperity on the peninsula and the countries around Northeast Asia. Significantly, South Korea would suffer the most as it is an open trading country. Geopolitical risk creates obstacles to trade and attracts foreign investment. Diplomatically, the tension might deepen the dependence on the Korea-US alliance and serve as a pretext for interventions from neighboring countries. In that sense, it can be inevitable that the South is intensifying its military posture. However, military measure alone is insufficient as a standard response because diplomatic arrangement is also required. Therefore, South Korea has substantial reasons to prevent the escalation of tensions on the peninsula.
Diplomatic measures are essential because the peninsula issue is essentially international, involving the United States and China and the bilateral conflict between the two Koreas. North Korea is fiercely making diplomatic efforts toward China and Russia to scrap the international sanctions regime against itself. Therefore, it should be the primary task for South Korea to make diplomatic efforts for China and Russia to join the movement to condemn the North for violating international norms. However, while the South Korean government is making considerable efforts to strengthen the Korea-US alliance or cooperation with the US and Japan, it isn’t easy to see diplomatic efforts for China and Russia. Managing security robustly without diplomatic efforts is practically impossible, and even though possible, it is not a wise approach because it costs too much.
Even if standard measures were carried out, the problem remains. If military tension is sensitively created, unintended military actions may occur. Local or full-scale war is possible in a situation where the other party’s intentions are wrongly interpreted. Therefore, crisis management is necessary to prevent unwanted conflicts. Communication with North Korea, the United States, China and Japan is essential from the perspective of the South, which must reduce geopolitical risks.
In addition to standard response and crisis management, there is another mission the South must do to ease military tensions. It is an effort to address the fundamental problem. There might be reasons why North Korea violates international regulations. Unless the causes are found and removed, the tensions will repeat. According to North Korean logic, they are at war against the US, the adversary has a formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons, and it must have nuclear weapons to deter the possible invasion from the US. Their claim is awkward, but it might provide a sense of guiding light with a different interpretation; if North Korea improves relations with the US, excludes the possibility of an invasion, and signs a peace treaty, North Korea can give up nuclear weapons and follow the US-led international order. It should go together with building a peace regime on the peninsula. North Korea’s claim could be the key to fundamentally resolving the nuclear issue. Somebody might argue that their logic is sheer propaganda and we should not be cheated. However, diplomacy is an exquisite art that can induce coexistence and consideration out of hatred and animosity. You must keep trying, as it’s better than giving up. There have been many such efforts to resolve the issue in the past, and there have been times when success was around the corner, though a final resolution has yet to be reached.
South Korea focuses on only one segment, military measure, out of four policy measures; military, diplomacy, crisis management, and peace regime building. The other three are being pursued very weakly, if not at all. We should do all four segments simultaneously. It is disturbing because we experienced a similar situation and got a catastrophe in 2010. There was the Cheonan warship’s sinking and Yeonpyeong Island’s shelling. Forty-six sailors passed away in the sinking, and four people, including two soldiers, were killed by the shelling. If the Korean government fails to manage this crisis, we can easily anticipate that we will get similar loss of lives, property damage, and a deterioration in national image. The peninsula must live with geopolitical risks if we cannot resolve the fundamental problem. South Korea is an advanced democracy; one of the top 10 military and economic powers; and a culturally attractive country. In such a country, living with unwanted anxiety due to the issues with the small nation of North Korea is not a smart scenario.
Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at the Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He was a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. — Ed.