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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Feb. 3)

Politics 07:00 February 03, 2023

Escalating confrontation
Allies should focus on extended deterrence

Since he took office eight months ago, President Yoon Suk Yeol has maintained a hardline stance against North Korea.

Accusing his liberal predecessor Moon Jae-in of showing a "servile attitude" toward North Korea and currying favor with Pyongyang, Yoon said, "Peace based on the goodwill of others is a fake peace."

Yoon's supporters applauded, and his approval rating rose.

On Tuesday, Washington also lent support to the conservative leader in Seoul. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reaffirmed steps to implement U.S. extended deterrence to underscore its security commitment to South Korea. "Peace through strength is our policy," the U.S. defense chief said.

Austin hurriedly came to Seoul after Yoon said South Korea would "consider building its own nuclear weapons" if North Korea's nuclear threat continues to grow. The nuclear remark was the first by a South Korean leader since the U.S. withdrew all its nuclear weapons from the peninsula in 1991. It also came days after Washington said no to Yoon's wish for redeploying U.S. tactical nukes or nuclear sharing so to speak.

Inter-Korean relations have gone up and down over the decades. Indeed, they rose when liberal leaders took power in South Korea and fell when conservatives replaced them. However, rarely have the ties been as confrontational as now. Verbal battles between the two Koreas escalate and they no longer make even the slightest gesture for dialogue. Of course, Pyongyang cannot avoid blame, launching nearly 70 missiles last year alone and sending drones over Yoon's office in Seoul.

But it takes two to tango.

North Korea's propaganda machine attacked Yoon as a "confrontational maniac," worse than even his two most recent conservative predecessors, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. The incumbent South Korean leader's hawkish stance may reflect his anti-communist inclination, aimed at cementing his political support, or just a part of his "ABM" (anything-but-Moon) policy. Or all of them. However, one thing is clear: bad peace is better than good war, as seen in Russia's war in Ukraine, which has been dragging on for almost a year now.

All the more so, as the world's major powers shift from cooperation to confrontation. China threatens to invade Taiwan and some U.S. military leaders warn against an "inevitable" military clash with the emerging Asian superpower. Many diplomatic and security pundits here wonder if Yoon took all this into account when he talked about developing South Korean nuclear weapons, a very risky and costly endeavor ― if not a downright impracticable idea, given the U.S.' policy and the international atmosphere. Was it a spontaneous release of emotion or a carefully calculated bluff? Neither is desirable, but the former is worse. Given the presidential office reaffirmed Seoul's commitment to the non-proliferation treaty a day later, however, our fears may prove right.

A recent survey shows that up to three-fourths of South Koreans think it necessary to develop nuclear bombs, reflecting their increasing uncertainty about the security situation. Yoon's remark might also have been aimed at such popular sentiment. However, a good leader does not follow the crowd or even fan their anxiety to score political points but calms and reassures them regarding the safety situation.

Former President Park Chung-hee attempted to build a nuclear bomb in the 1970s to prepare for a U.S. troop withdrawal but gave up due to U.S. pressure. Five decades later, history seems to be repeating.

The same survey found that half of South Koreans were in doubt about whether the U.S. would risk San Francisco for Seoul in the event of a North Korean nuclear attack. However, they must also consider whether the North would risk its entire existence in order to attack a U.S. city. In conventional war, too, the North is no match for the South, which has a far stronger military and is a powerful economic opponent backed by the world's most powerful country.

Trading threats only fits leaders already engaged in war. As the popular saying goes, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." A leader's role is to prevent war, not instigate it.

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