Are the dueling dogs of war finally done barking and snarling? Is it safe to come out now?
Kim Jong Un reckons so. Just when folks in Seoul noticed he’d not been seen for a fortnight, out of his bunker he pops – to pull back from the brink over Guam. We breathe again. Though let’s face it, as NK News’ John Lee notes, Kim won that round.
(In passing: Yours truly has been AWOL too from NK News, for much longer and quite other reasons. Sorry about that, dear readers. It’s good to be back, especially in interesting times.)
Now the peninsula has calmed down a bit, at least temporarily, let’s ponder this rather scary recent episode and try to learn lessons so that – with any luck – we might avoid a repetition.
Many points might be made. To start with, here I’ll focus on just one: the red line question.
It’s a concept very much in vogue. Should someone – but who? – draw a red line with North Korea: warning Kim Jong Un on no account to cross it, on pain of – what penalty, exactly? And are these folks who are so keen to paint the road doing so in the right place?
Choosing this topic, I had supposed the main focus would be on Washington and Donald Trump. But what do you know? This morning, as I write, red lines are in the headlines again.
Only this time uttered by a different President: not Trump, but South Korea’s Moon Jae-in.
Given Moon’s progressive background and the tenor of his other recent comments, Moon is the last person I had expected to set red lines. And frankly, reading his remarks, I’m puzzled.
Setting a red line that may already have been breached is confusing and risks raising tensions
RED LINE: RED HERRING?
A prior question is whether red lines are a good idea at all. I am skeptical. Why tie yourself down in advance? To what end exactly? Clarity, I suppose. If – crucial if – you really mean it.
The worst of all worlds is when a red line has been announced but is then promptly flouted – and nothing is done about it. Obama on the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a case in point.
I fear that South Korea’s President may have just dug himself a similar hole. As NK News reported, on August 17 Moon Jae-in declared: “The red line is North Korea completing its development of ICBM and weaponizing it by mounting a nuclear warhead onto it.”
Meaning what? At that point Seoul has had enough, and takes military action? No.
So what ace does Moon have up his sleeve as he warns Pyongyang not to cross the line? Wait for it: it’s tougher sanctions! Unendurably tough! I.e. more of the same.
Can’t you just see Kim Jong Un trembling in terror, as he hastily calls off his WMD program on the brink of triumph and comes crawling to sue for peace? No, me neither.
Moon also said the North “has been reaching the threshold of this red line gradually” – which undercuts his argument. It is indeed an incremental process, step by steady step. Why on earth would Kim stop now, unless given some utterly compelling reason (be it stick or carrot)?
Besides, some analysts reckon the North already crossed that threshold. It was a leaked report by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA, the Pentagon’s intel arm), claiming Pyongyang can now miniaturize nukes to mount on missiles, which prompted the latest bout of saber-rattling. Setting a red line that may already have been breached is confusing and risks raising tensions.
Anyway, why should nuclear-tipped ICBMs be the red line for South Korea specifically? Kim Jong Un’s seemingly ever more potentially deliverable nukes may or may not threaten the wider world, and the U.S. in particular.
IN CLOSE RANGE
But the threat to South Koreans – especially the 20 million who live in the megalopolis that is greater Seoul, too close for comfort to the border – is both far broader and uniquely specific.
As is often noted, much of Seoul is within the range of the Korean People’s Army (KPA)’s 10,000-odd artillery pieces, some with chemical-tipped shells, dug in all along the ironically named Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). So think big guns first.
Then think of all the KPA’s missiles: again, short-range, non-nuclear ones are quite enough to rain fire on the South. All this the Republic of Korea (ROK) and its people have lived with for decades, showing surprising insouciance.
Why on earth would Kim stop now, unless given some utterly compelling reason (be it stick or carrot)?
Indeed, a case can be made that South Korea is actually less at risk from Northern nukes than countries further afield. Kim Jong Un can’t control the wind, and radiation is no respecter of man-made borders. Were he to nuke the South – which he won’t, for this and many other reasons – the risk of contamination blowing back on his own people would be very real.
Hence for Moon Jae-in to endorse the concept of red lines in general, and the North’s ICBMs in particular as being the place to draw them, is strange. It suggests, if not capitulation, then a surprising degree of accommodation to the agenda of the U.S., with whom relations are a little awkward at the moment.
Of course, allies must strive to sing from the same sheet. But Moon’s latest ditty strikes a very different note from the one he was chanting – in strident solo, rather than a close sweet two-part harmony a la Everly Brothers – just days before.
On August 15, Liberation Day for both Koreas, the New York Times headlined: “South Korea’s Leader Bluntly Warns U.S. Against Striking North.”
In a nationally televised speech, Moon was firm indeed: “Military action on the Korean peninsula can only be decided by South Korea. No one else can decide to take military action without [our] consent.”
Come to think of it, that sounded like a red line too – but one for Washington rather than Pyongyang.
Will the real Moon – full or crescent – please stand up? Poor guy: you feel for him, his peace agenda torpedoed by the fierce verbal crossfire. But all this doesn’t quite cohere, does it?
There’s more to be said on this topic. Subsequent articles will look at the checkered history of past efforts to set red lines on the Korean peninsula, before turning to the current $64 trillion question: where is Trump’s red line? Is it in the right place? And does he really mean it?
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun
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