Guest Opinion: A tweaked North Korea acts out
Last week the United States, North Korea and South Korea, with China and Japan standing by, accelerated the sometimes-dangerous military dance periodically underway in that part of East Asia.
South Korea and the United States began on Monday their annual joint military exercises, called “Ulchi Freedom Guardian.” The normal North Korean response to these exercises came on Wednesday with Kim Jong-un’s Pyongyang regime test-firing from a submarine a ballistic missile 300 miles into the Sea of Japan toward Japan. The foreign ministers of China, Japan and South Korea, meeting in Tokyo later on Wednesday, condemned the North Korean launch.
The exchange comes against a highly charged background. The United States proposed to South Korea in July to base an advanced anti-missile defense system, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, in South Korea. The decision to accept or refuse the THAAD is still under vigorous discussion in South Korea.
China objects to the United States basing a THAAD in South Korea, seeing the action as aimed at it. South Korea’s decision will be partly based on the fact that China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, with a quarter of its exports going there.
Japan’s government is facing an equally fraught decision as a background to its reaction to North Korea’s latest provocation. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to harden Japan’s military posture in the region, a turn away from its post-World War II position based on its constitution. Aggressive North Korean actions strengthen his position, which is, however, still strongly opposed by important elements in the Japanese political mix.
The U.S. position in the region is based on several elements. One is a felt need to counteract growing Chinese influence. A second is to maintain the now anachronistic U.S. military role in South Korea, 63 years after the Korean War armistice, including 28,500 U.S. troops commanded by many generals, and the large U.S. military presence in Japan. The economies of both South Korea and Japan are easily large enough to provide for their own defense.
The critical piece of the situation at the moment is not to let any of the points of friction in the region ignite a real war. It is hard to see how Ulchi Freedom Guardian is a positive step in that context.