The growing threat of a nuclear North Korea undercuts U.S. security, but Wellesley College Professor Katharine H. S. Moon argues in Foreign Affairs that “the United States would be simply wrong to assume that it is the ultimate target of North Korea’s belligerence” and that the North is ultimately South Korea’s problem.

Moon sees a South Korean response to the threat emerging under new President Moon Jae-in. It includes support for the advanced U.S. anti-missile defense system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), which the South Korean president had previously opposed. She predicts that “it is likely that South Koreans’ support for nuclearization will grow,” with 58 percent supporting the development of South Korea’s own nuclear arsenal in a recent survey.

Examining South Korea’s reactions to military and economic pressures from North Korea, the United States, and China, the author notes, “South Korean presidents have rarely been so explicit about telling Washington what it can or cannot do. [President] Moon may be hoping to be more assertive in dealing with both North Korea and the United States to avoid getting trapped by either’s initiatives.”

Moon observes, “China’s unofficial sanctions against South Korea are causing real economic pain to chaebol (family-owned conglomerates), cultural entrepreneurs, and average workers alike at a time when good diplomatic relations with Beijing are critical for Seoul’s geopolitical and domestic economic goals.” She also notes that “the Trump administration is intent on pushing tougher trade demands on both China and South Korea while pressing each to deal collaboratively with the nuclear challenge from North Korea.”

“This puts South Korea on a tough path: it must balance its security and economic priorities while also improving relations with two indispensable powers. Seen in this light, it is no wonder that the North, sensing a lack of solidarity among those who could rein it in, has decided in recent weeks to test the strength of the alliance,” concludes Moon.

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