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The possibility of war looms over the Korean peninsula

The Hill logo The Hill 2/9/2022 Seung-Whan Choi, opinion contributor
Military guard posts of North Korea, rear, and South Korea, front, are seen in Paju, near the border with North Korea, South Korea © Associated Press/Ahn Young-joon Military guard posts of North Korea, rear, and South Korea, front, are seen in Paju, near the border with North Korea, South Korea

Until recently, I used to tell friends who asked for my opinion on the Korean situation that no matter how provocative North Korea is, there will be no war between the two Koreas as long as the United States keeps its soldiers near Seoul. A dark cloud gathering over the Korean peninsula has caused me to broaden my perspective. Four weather fronts appear to be on a collision course that could lead to the outbreak of a second Korean war.

First, the decline of U.S. military prowess creates a dangerous power vacuum in South Korea. The U.S. no longer can maintain its military superiority all over the world and must revise its global security plan. The hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan was an example of this weakening hegemony and may foreshadow U.S. attempts to readjust military priorities.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin will neither stop his aggression toward NATO expansion nor abandon his ambition for "Greater Russia," President Biden is forced to redistribute limited military assets to Eastern Europe to counter Russia's challenge to Ukraine. The Korean peninsula may be compromised by this redistribution. Biden may need to reduce the level of the U.S. security umbrella over South Korea to bolster security measures in Europe. This could embolden North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to test the waters on the Korean peninsula.

Second, Biden's foreign policy team is not as diplomatically amenable to North Korea as it could be. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan have never prioritized talks with North Korea over matters involving China, Russia and Iran. Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, may be more on board and has suggested that his boss is willing to engage in diplomacy with North Korea "without preconditions." However, by reportedly choosing Philip Goldberg, a former North Korea sanctions enforcer, to become the ambassador to South Korea, Biden will send a conflicting signal to Kim.

No matter how hard the U.S. tries to communicate with North Korea, Kim will not respond favorably until the U.S. lifts economic sanctions on his regime and ends joint military exercises with South Korea. In the push for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, Biden must acknowledge that, just as he has concerns about China using economic coercion against other countries, Kim has the same concerns about U.S. actions toward his country.


Video: N.Korea celebrates founding anniversary of its army (Reuters)

Third, since Kim came to power in 2012, North Korea's military has become much more powerful with the rapid advancement of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. It is evident that, despite U.S. and South Korean efforts, North Korea will not denuclearize; it views nuclear weapons as central to its national security. Moreover, Kim is a resolute foe with a single foreign policy message: "An eye for an eye." He is likely to take the "honorable death" for his regime that would result if he followed through with an "eye for an eye" policy, rather than survive in disgrace.

Pressuring Kim to relinquish his nuclear arsenal is a dead end. For him it brings to mind other dictators, such as Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, who gave up their nuclear weapons programs and then were killed. Kim is also aware of the security risk that three former Soviet republics - Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan - have experienced at different levels after giving up their nukes following the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

To sit together with Kim for meaningful talks, Biden must be willing to innovate his Korean policy. Recall the Aesop fable, "The North Wind and the Sun," in which the sun wins when the wind and the sun bet on which can force a man to remove his coat. Otherwise, Kim will certainly keep playing with nuclear missiles and will perceive any attempt to take them away as a threat to his regime and his life.

Fourth, South Korea's domestic politics soon may pour salt into North Korea's wound. In the upcoming March presidential election, if conservative Yoon Seok-youl with the People Power Party wins, the country will have a more hawkish president.Yoon for 27 years was a prosecutor general who learned to see things in black or white. Although he has said he is open to communication with the North, and to offering the country humanitarian aid, he also has taken a hardline position on security issues, even suggesting that the South should launch a preemptive strike against Pyongyang if Seoul faces an imminent threat of a nuclear missile attack.

North and South Koreas together are only 1.16 times as big as Wyoming. Where could all the Koreans - and the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed there - take cover to avoid disastrous explosions when North Korea fires more nuclear missiles in retaliation?

Indeed, with U.S. military priorities likely to shift out of necessity, and the potential for a hardline leader in South Korea to line up against Kim, the risk of another Korean war looms larger than ever before.

Seung-Whan Choi teaches international relations and Korean politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A retired Army officer, he is the author of several books, including "Emerging Security Challenges: American Jihad, Terrorism, Civil War, and Human Rights."

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