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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Sept. 11)

2017/09/11 06:57

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NK contingency plans

New developments catch Seoul off guard

South Korea finds itself in the role of bystander in the North Korean nuclear and missile crisis, although it is the party most affected by the outcome. The North's tactic of alienating it is one reason, while the international nature of the crisis is another. But it is imperative Seoul keep finding ways of staying involved, have its say and determine the outcome that serves its interests.

For that to happen, it is pivotal for the government to have plans to counter a variety of contingencies. The lack of such plans has caught the Moon government flat-footed when the North pressed ahead with its nuclear and missile tests and the U.S. is zigzagging from hard-line to soft-pedaling without bothering to consult Seoul.

In this political melee, the government has lost its political compass and given up its pursuit of reconciliation with the North to follow the U.S. lead and acquiesce to the rising conservative domestic demand for inter-Korean confrontation. This change of stance has come without a fallback plan and will likely make it harder to seek dialogue again later.

There are now two big contingencies. The first is related to what to do in the lead-up to the international recognition, unofficial most likely, or denial of the North's possession of nuclear weapons. The second is about the aftermath.

It is widely agreed that the North is close to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tipped with a sizable nuclear warhead, capable of striking key U.S. population centers.

There could be more crises in the coming months, with experts believing the North needs about a year or so to complete its ICBM capability. The biggest crisis is about a U.S. temptation to launch a pre-emptive strike at the risk of triggering a second Korean War. What would Seoul have to prevent it? The second biggest would be about the North's provocations that would crest as the U.S. urges China and Russia to cut off oil supplies to the North, a move which is happening now in the United Nations. Seoul appears to be a reluctant rider on the runaway U.S. sanctions train and there will be a time for it to try to slow the train down. The plan should cover how it should do that.

In case the North's nuclear status is somehow accepted, the North is likely to try to cut a deal about a moratorium on tests or freeze its nuclear and missile programs. By its current and past behavior, the North will definitely try to sideline the South to deal directly with Washington. The U.S. may be drawn to Pyongyang's proposal that it withdraw from the Korean Peninsula. Already, some Americans have argued for the U.S. pullout.

Our plan should deal with preventing the U.S. pullout, setting in place self-preservation measures in case that happens, or, more broadly, ways of achieving a balance of power with a nuclear-armed North Korea. Then, there should be our winning strategy of outlasting the North. Better to be prepared than sorry. Besides, while preparing, chances are we will find new strengths we did not know we had.