Carlos Barria / Reuters

Caught in the Middle

The North Korean Threat Is Ultimately Seoul's Problem

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 the Pacific, and its largest trading partner, China. President Moon Jae-in, however, who has been in office for only three months, has been dealing with the stresses remarkably well. In the early weeks of his presidency, Moon took a softer rhetorical approach toward the volatile Donald Trump, fully agreeing with the U.S. president’s suggestion to tighten allied coordination and impose tougher sanctions on Pyongyang. The new South Korean leader surprised those who had assumed that as a pro-engagement, liberal opposition leader, he would go easy on North Korea. After Pyongyang conducted an ICBM test in early July, Moon emphasized that “more than just a statement” was needed and then proposed that Seoul and Washington conduct a decapitation missile-firing drill, which would prepare for the elimination of the top North Korean leadership in case of war.

But Moon had also insisted, upon assuming office, that South Korea suspend and review the full deployment of the advanced U.S. anti-missile defense system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), which had already begun prior to his presidency. To his North humanitarian assistance, military dialogue to reduce border tensions, and the reunion of families divided by the demilitarized zone. (Pyongyang has rejected all offers thus far.) Moon’s gestures are notable for avoiding the self-righteous and superior attitude of his predecessor, the impeached and deposed Park Geun-hye. Pyongyang excoriated her, and interpreted her pursuit of preparations for unification to mean its collapse or its forced absorption by South Korea. Still, inter-Korean relations fell to a new low during Park’s tenure.

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