COMMENTARY: Tamping down tensions on the Korean Peninsula

It looks like Barack Obama’s warning to Donald Trump about what would be his toughest foreign policy challenge proved accurate. Within two months of Trump’s inauguration as America’s 45th president, tensions on the Korean Peninsula are increasing, not diminishing. This article assesses the situation and provides options for the future.

The list of nations in the region — most of which have conflicting agendas — is familiar enough: communist North Korea and free South Korea, bordered on land by communist China and oversea by free Japan. The trouble starts with North Korea’s apparent nuclear aims, which have been on display with testing of ballistic missiles and threats emanating from North Korean leader Kim Jung Un. Recently, a test missile traveled 620 miles, landing in an area of water that is considered Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

The reaction to North Korea’s military moves included actions by a plethora of nations. First, South Korea accepted American deployment of the U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, anti-missile system, scheduled to be installed this year. But South Korea, which hosts 28,500 American troops for protection, has been dealing with its own political crisis following the ouster of President Park Geun-hye for various scandals. With elections scheduled for May of this year, the leading candidate is a supporter of more engagement with North Korea.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

China, bordering North Korea, has protested the installation of THAAD to both South Korea and the United States. For the short term, the Chinese government has warned its citizens not to travel to South Korea and could take retaliatory steps against U.S. and South Korean businesses which interact with China. Meanwhile, China’s construction of artificial islands in the waters surrounding the nation has increased its holdings, and thereby, its sphere of influence.

Japan, threatened by North Korea’s missile tests and Kim Jong Un’s nasty utterances, called a meeting of its Parliament to decide how to react. That Japan is finally being led by a strong prime minister in Shinzo Abe is a plus. However, even he could not forestall talk among members of his own political party of gaining preemptive first-strike ability against North Korea, a move which could rile not only North Korea, but China and South Korea, as well.

The United States, with 54,000 troops stationed in Japan in addition to those in South Korea, obviously has a large stake in what develops on the peninsula. Perhaps in anticipation of Obama’s warning, and surely in reaction to proximate events, the Trump White House dispatched Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to South Korea in mid-March to confer and plan strategy.

On its face, there are three alternative paths to follow to deal with the intersecting, dangerous events affecting the Korean Peninsula: conquering, accommodation or acquiescence. Neither the first nor third options are immediately acceptable, for either could lead to nuclear war. Rather, managing the situation with a combination of international law, benefits for good behavior, and pressure from allies and adversaries alike seems to be the best short-term solution.

In whatever form, a coordinated strategy which considers the views and aspirations of all the nations involved is paramount.

Whatever policy develops for dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat is also relevant for the associated danger coming from Iran.

The path to preventing nuclear proliferation is perilous but necessary for world stability. In such a case, realpolitik must supersede ideological doctrine, for the future of humanity hangs in the balance.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He is a past recipient of a Military History Fellowship from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Dr. Hoff has taught and published extensively on American military, national security, and intelligence issues.

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