By Lee Haye-ah
WASHINGTON, Aug. 17 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in's declaration that North Korea will be crossing a "red line" if it fields a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile has baffled some U.S. experts who argue the liberal leader may be boxing himself into a corner.
Moon, in a press conference marking his first 100 days in office Thursday, defined the red line as the weaponization of an ICBM fitted with a nuclear warhead.
He also said the North is increasingly nearing that line. What remained unclear is what would happen if the provocative regime of Kim Jong-un decided to cross it.
The remark was seen as unusual coming from a leader who has long advocated engagement with Pyongyang. Even U.S. President Donald Trump, who has threatened Pyongyang with "fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before," has refrained from drawing red lines.
Douglas Paal, vice president for studies for the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, pointed to the consequences.
"Red lines can only acquire credibility through repeated and consistent articulation, with leverage or capabilities to enforce them, if crossed," he said in emailed comments to Yonhap. "President Moon is a new figure in his position, and it is likely adversaries will test his ability to enforce his red lines."
Paal quoted Noboru Yamaguchi, a retired lieutenant general with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force: "There have been so many red lines laid down before North Korea, they are beginning to look like a red carpet."
Ken Gause, a North Korea expert who is director of the International Affairs Group at CNA Corp., amplified Paal's assessment.
"If the adversary doesn't believe another country can make good on its threat (which President Moon did not really articulate other than to say the pressure would be unbearable), it is not a wise move for that other country to set out a red line," he said. "As Kim Jong-un perceives it, he needs a nuclear deterrent in order to survive. As such, he needs to violate President Moon's red line to get there.
Moon, according to Gause, has done "nothing" to build up leverage to stop North Korea's pursuit of that objective, and Kim probably believes a military option on the Korean Peninsula is unlikely.
"Therefore, President Moon has put himself in a difficult situation," Gause said. "Unless Seoul and Washington (and possibly Beijing) can figure out how to get Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear program, the red line will be violated. Once the red line is violated, the entire calculus changes. North Korea's leverage will go way up. We will have to see how they choose to play the game -- become more coercive or a responsible nuclear power. (South Korea) and the United States will be left with no good options -- negotiate or get busy figuring out containment."
Jonathan Pollack, Korea studies chair at the Brookings Institution, pointed to a paradox in Moon's definition.
"The only way we will know definitively that North Korea actually has a nuclear-armed missile that works is to demonstrate this capability," he said, noting that a test missile would fly over the territory of other nations and possibly be aimed at the U.S.
"It would be considered an act of war which others would see as justifying preemption, and retaliation if preemption or missile defense did not work," he also said.
The Pentagon referred relevant queries to the White House or the Department of State. The White House National Security Council deferred comment to the Department of State, which in turn referred queries to the South Korean government.
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