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Caught in the Middle

The North Korean Threat Is Ultimately Seoul's Problem

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for a joint news conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., June 30, 2017. Carlos Barria / Reuters

After sending a missile over Japan on Tuesday morning, North Korea has returned to threatening the United States, claiming its latest provocation was only a prelude to what awaits Guam. To be sure, Pyongyang takes pleasure at taunting the most powerful country in the world with its growing nuclear capabilities, but the United States would be simply wrong to assume that it is the ultimate target of North Korea’s belligerence.

For the United States, a nuclear armed North Korea undercuts its security and traditional policy objectives, such as nonproliferation, and destabilizes the East Asia region. But for South Korea, it is an existential threat. Given the high tensions of late, Seoul fears being dragged into a war or, at the very least, falling victim to limited military exchanges between Washington and Pyongyang.

South Korea faces a triad of pressures—from its enemy in the north, its superpower ally across

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