East Asia Compass

North Korea: Testing the Limits of US-South Korea Relations

06 Sep, 2017    ·   5357

Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra considers the bilateral relationship in light of North Korea's latest nuclear test

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un must be the happiest to see the state of South Korea-US relations. One of his fundamental desires is to create a rift between the US and South Korea, and he has been trying to achieve it consistently for years. In the last few months, he has found a very helpful friend in President Donald Trump. It seems that Trump has been contributing more than Kim himself to realise North Korea’s foreign policy objective. After calculated provocations by North Korea, the Trump administration resorted to mindless and inconsistent responses, like "fire and fury" and "ready locked and loaded." It led to serious discomfort in South Korea, which wanted to engage North Korea and resolve the nuclear and missile problems through negotiations. To restrain the US, in an extraordinary assertion, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on 15 August 2017 that “no one can make a decision on military action on the Korean peninsula without our agreement.” The statement was meant as a warning to US President Donald Trump.

Trust between the US and South Korea lowered when the US tried to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea, at a time when South Korea did not have an elected leader in command in the interim period after the tenure of the previous President Park Geun-hye. During his presidential campaign, Moo Jae-in identified several problems in the process of installation of the THAAD in South Korea, but the US had taken the process to an irreversible stage. After taking oath as president in May 2017, Jae-in did not have much choice but to accept the THAAD system in South Korea.

When Washington, DC’s demand that Seoul bear the cost of the THAAD was met with resentment in South Korea, the US clarified that it would go by the initial agreed terms on the matter. However, the incident definitely raised suspicion within South Korea about the Trump administration’s intent. Similarly, when the US unilaterally deliberated reinstalling tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula, it was again refuted strongly by Jae-in.

Trump's unpredictability and inconsistency have created more concerns in South Korea than in North Korea. In a recent episodes, the Trump administration threatened to scrap the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with South Korea because it favours the latter. Given such incidents, the Jae-in administration is not sure about the reliability of US responses in any serious security and economic crises in South Korea. South Korea, which seeks dialogue with North Korea, is also worried that if an armed conflict initiated by the US occurs on the peninsula, Seoul will have to bear most of the costs. In spite of North Korean rhetoric, Pyongyang still does not have reliable capacity to hit US territories, and ultimately it would target Japan and South Korea where a substantial number of US troops are present.

North Korea’s Sixth Nuclear Test
Dissonance in US-South Korea perceptions and methods also became obvious after North Korea's sixth nuclear test on 3 September 2017. South Korea held National Security Council (NSC) meeting where it was expressed that it "will ratchet up pressure on North Korea until Kim Jong-un agrees to talk.” It is important to note South Korea’s insistence on talks with North Korea. In response, President Trump tweeted, “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they (North Korea) only understand one thing.”

To resolve the North Korean issue, it is urgent to have a coordinated approach, at least among US allies. North Korea’s sixth test has been the biggest till date, of around 100-150 kilotons of yield. The North Korean state media claimed that this was a thermonuclear device, now ready to be used with inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM). North Korea also tested the Hyosung-12 and Hyosung-14 in July and August respectively, the latter being supposedly an ICBM with the capacity to reach the US mainland. 

Unfortunately, Trump seems more interested in blaming South Korea’s ‘appeasement’ and making provocative ‘irresponsible statements’. After the North Korean test, the White House announced another warning, of a "massive military response" by the US against North Korean provocation. US Defence Secretary James Mattis said that the US does not seek the “total annihilation” of North Korea, but threatened that it has “many options to do so,” emphasising that the US response would be “both effective and overwhelming.” When reporters asked Trump whether he had plans to attack North Korea, he answered, “we’ll see.”

Provocative statements from the Trump administration have been so oft-repeated that they appear to be empty and simply irresponsible. In yet another tweet,  Trump said that "the United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea." President Trump seems to be unaware that some of these countries would include China, India, Philippines, Taiwan, France, Russia, Brazil, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

In the heightened crisis on the Korean peninsula, it would be a challenge for the South Korean administration to deal with the US and the North Korean leaders simultaneously, but it would definitely have to do so. Left up to Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump, the consequences would be disastrous.