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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Jan. 3)

All Headlines 06:55 January 03, 2017

Handling NK
ROK-US leadership vacuum put to test

South Korea and the United States will likely get caught flatfooted on how to respond to forthcoming provocations by North Korea. Pyongyang has already put out notice through the New Year speech by its leader Kim Jong-un regarding its last-stage preparations to test-fire an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM).

The challenge for the two allies is that, when the North conducts such a test, Seoul will likely be run by an acting president, while the U.S. will still be in transition. This leadership vacuum can only be aggravated by the usual problem in dealing with the North ― lack of strong options.

With less than three weeks before Donald Trump's presidential inauguration, the outgoing Obama administration was slow to respond. The State Department only replied to an inquiry from a Korean news agency by repeating its toothless threat of unspecified consequences on Kim's ICBM vow.

The South didn't even react. The atmosphere in the government is obviously to keep a low profile to avoid a clash with the National Assembly, which is now nitpicking on government affairs. Cheong Wa Dae is out of action with President Park Geun-hye impeached. Park chose to spend New Year's Day defending herself in the case for her dismissal being deliberated by the Constitutional Court.

The incoming Trump administration appears unconcerned about the North with its top priority being the dismantling of a nuclear deal with Iran. Trump talks one day about having a hamburger lunch with the young dictator and the next day turns hostile. Trump's top security-related officials ― Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis, national security advisor Michael Flynn and U.N. Ambassador-designate Nikki Haley as well as Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson ― are no experts in North Korean affairs. Some call the team of retired generals "trigger-happy."

Also noteworthy is Trump's focus on changing the current diplomatic rules of engagement to keep China at bay and use Russia for that purpose, meaning that the North will be pushed down the U.S.'s priority list.

Say, on the first week of the Trump administration, the North's long-range missile flies across Japan and lands close to the California coast or Hawaii. Four options are as follow: 1) a military show of force 2) the repetition of rhetorical retaliation 3) appeasement 4) none of the above. The correct answer, at least for now, is No. 4. The first three have failed because they're tried without a big-picture plan. The No. 4 should give us time to reset policy goals on the North and layout a process to achieve them.
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