The conflict on the Korean Peninsula has moved into a new and dangerous phase.
North Korea’s rhetoric and unabated march towards ever greater missile and nuclear capability, combined with Trump’s erratic but hardline style, have many analysts seeking to draft the next chapter of the Korean story post-strategic patience.
The dispatch of a U.S. navy strike group on April 12 towards Korean waters and statements by Trump, have heightened fears that the U.S. could be entertaining a surgical strike against North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities.
Yet, at a time when tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have reached a crescendo, Seoul’s voice has hardly been heard. This is despite the fact that it would most likely endure massive casualties from any conflict between the two states.
Business as Usual?
While numerous Western newspapers have been filled with headlines about the heightened military tensions and the potential for war in recent days, many South Koreans have been more preoccupied with domestic news.
With an election on May 9, following the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, many ordinary South Koreans are worried about the country’s economic difficulties and the tough labor market, especially for young people.
South Koreans have become habituated to the frequent escalation of tensions with their northern neighbor. This is particularly the case in April each year when South Korea holds large-scale military exercises with the U.S.
In the run up to the election, furthermore, liberal voters see the recent tensions as a convenient rallying cry used by the conservatives to drum up their vote.
This is not to say that there has been no cause for alarm. Trump’s sudden airstrikes in Syria over two weeks ago led South Koreans, especially the older generation who experienced the Korean War, to fear another all-out war if the U.S. launched preemptive strikes against North Korea.
Nevertheless, the majority of South Koreans do not think that the U.S. could seriously entertain a preemptive strike. Short of the U.S starting to evacuate all American citizens from South Korea – numbering nearly 140,000 – the reality is that Trump’s options are limited.
While building up the rhetoric and putting on a show of mock force – as witnessed by delaying the entry of the USS Carl Vinson into Korean waters – Trump seems to be still pinning hope on China to exert real leverage. An article in the Global Times, affiliated with the Chinese state newspaper said, “China may consider cutting oil exports to North Korea to pressure the latter to halt further nuclear and missile tests.”
But, while both powers seem to be finding increasing consensus on applying greater pressure on Pyongyang, China’s real interest continues to lie in resolving tensions through non-military measures.
Need for Crisis Management
In the meantime, the true dangers are minor military incidents and misunderstandings that could escalate into a serious military conflict. With North-South military hotlines were terminated in February 2016, there are few if any crisis management mechanisms to relay intentions and cool tensions in hotspots such as the DMZ and the Yellow Sea.
As such, South Korea should play an active role to ensure that rising tensions do not lead to war. To begin with, diplomatic and military channels, including hotlines between the ROK and DPRK, at both the official and unofficial levels are urgently needed.
While the ultimate goal should be a return for all sides to the negotiation table to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the immediate priority is to reestablish dialogue channels to reduce the risk of misperceptions between the parties.
Unhelpfully, in a televised debate on April 19, the five main presidential candidates clashed on the question of whether North Korea should be seen as the South’s “main enemy,” instead of engaging in constructive discussion on the national security policy of the next government.
South Korea is a key stakeholder to crisis management and peaceful resolution. It’s time for the incoming South Korean government to raise its voice, reminding all sides – above all the U.S. and North Korea – that loose talk of military action is not the right way forward.
Sangsoo Lee is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute. Alec Forss is an editor at ISDP and is currently conducting fieldwork in Northern Ireland.