North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) July 4 poses a major challenge to the South Korea-U.S. alliance. North Korea has long made no secret that it intends to achieve the capability to credibly threaten the entire U.S. mainland with nuclear attack as soon it can.
The July 4 flight lasted longer than any previous North Korean missile test, and it was apparently timed for maximum psychological and political impact. It came on the United States’ Independence Day holiday, on the heels of the first summit meeting between the new Korean and American presidents, and just ahead of the G-20 summit in Germany, which is bringing together Northeast Asian, U.S., and Russian leaders. It occurred despite the belief of some observers that North Korea was holding off on further provocative moves because of Chinese pressure or possibly because Pyongyang hoped for better relations with the new engagement-minded Moon administration in the South.
The North Korean test has moved the country much closer to its goal of being able to hold the United States hostage to a nuclear strike, something that President Donald Trump earlier this year declared “won’t happen” even if using a “military option” is necessary to stop it. It also constitutes a body blow against the new Moon administration’s project for an early resumption of South-North contacts and multilateral negotiations aimed at eventual denuclearization. It again calls into question President Moon Jae-in’s decision to postpone the full deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense unit already in the country until a year-long environmental survey is completed.
At their summit in Washington last week, Moon and Trump got to know each other and began to establish a working relationship. They agreed on some general goals and principles for dealing with North Korea, but they did not attempt to flesh out and finalize those understandings. Now the North Korean ICBM test should prompt them to greatly accelerate their consultations to come up with a complete shared understanding of North Korea’s intentions and a game-plan for how the alliance will respond. The two leaders just met again in Germany on the margins of the G20 summit, and each is having a series of other meetings there with Northeast Asian leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both Trump and Moon need to take care that neither gets too far ahead of the other in responding to the latest test before they coordinate further with each other. History teaches that neither the United States nor South Korea can make progress in dealing with the threats and challenges posed by the North if they are at odds with one another.
The situation surrounding alliance cooperation on North Korea is perhaps more challenging than at any time since the Korean War. The Trump administration’s North Korea policy focuses on applying “maximum” pressure on Pyongyang until the regime is willing to enter into genuine denuclearization negotiations. The Moon administration, on the other hand, has indicated it might be willing to support concessions to Pyongyang, such as scaling back combined South Korea-U.S. military exercises, for the regime’s temporarily halting nuclear and missiles tests. Moon’s aim is to facilitate an early return to negotiations. This is generally in line with China’s public call for the suspension of large-scale South Korea-U.S. exercises in exchange for a North Korea nuclear and missile freeze, a proposal for which Putin expressed support in his meeting with Xi on the very day that North Korea tested the ICBM.
Meanwhile, U.S. relations with both China and Russia have seriously deteriorated over the past decade, and especially recently due to the controversy over Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and to Trump’s decision to take a number of moves opposed by China, including imposing sanctions directly against Chinese entities for violating sanctions against North Korea. Moreover, China’s furious response to the transfer of the U.S. THAAD unit to South Korea lends credence to the argument of those analysts who assert that Beijing increasingly has a long-term goal of seeing an end to the South Korea-U.S. alliance, something North Korea has pursued since its founding. South Korea-Japan relations remain frosty due to historical issues lingering from Japan’s colonization of Korea, greatly limiting their security communication and cooperation to deal with North Korea. This situation makes further policy coordination among the concerned powers all the more important, complex, and delicate.
While Moon and Trump are having to respond “on the fly” now to the North Korean ICBM test, they and their top advisers need to try to arrive at a shared understanding of what North Korea’s strategic goals are in regard to its nuclear and missile programs. Unless they do so, they may be like two physicians whose diagnoses of a patient’s condition are at odds and who thus prescribe different, even conflicting, courses of treatment. Yet, stunningly, there has never been a consensus within either country, much less between South Korea and the United States, as to what the North’s aims are. On the one hand, some think that the North primarily seeks a deterrent against a much more powerful South Korea-U.S. alliance, while others, such as former U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill, believe that the North Koreans aim to use the threat of a nuclear attack against the United States to “decouple” the United States strategically from South Korea and then “rewrite the peninsula on their own terms.”
The lack of agreement on North Korea’s strategic aims is of course in part the result of North Korea’s extreme secrecy. North Korea believes it maximizes its influence and its defense by being as secretive as possible about most everything, but especially about its military capabilities and strategic goals. But another reason is longstanding ideological and partisan differences over North Korea within South Korea and, less so, the United States. These differences vastly complicate serious study of North Korean intentions. So far the discussion within both countries has been superficial, with both sides relying on meaningless buzzwords in lieu of serious, probing thought and debate. While reaching complete agreement within and between the two governments and countries over North Korea will probably never be possible, the situation has now become so important, and the stakes so high, that a serious debate must be undertaken.
Until the United States and South Korea have more agreement on what North Korea’s goals are and how, together, they can best respond to them, we should consider neither a “military option” nor steps that could undermine our combined deterrent and defense efforts. As physicians are taught, “First, do no harm.”
David Straub is the Sejong-LS Fellow at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, Korea, and a former Department of State Korean affairs director.
This is a slightly revised version of a commentary originally published by The Sejong Institute.