North Korea’s ICBM fires up fears in South for US al­liance

Kuwait Times - - LOCAL -

North Korea’s lat­est mis­sile test has ex­tended the range of its weapons to much of main­land US and raised a new fear in the South: would Wash­ing­ton pro­tect Seoul when that could put Amer­i­can cities in dan­ger? The US is se­cu­rity guar­an­tor for the demo­cratic and cap­i­tal­ist South, where 28,500 US troops are sta­tioned to de­fend it from Py­ongyang af­ter the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a cease­fire in­stead of a peace treaty.

The al­liance with Seoul has also been a key pil­lar of Wash­ing­ton’s geopo­lit­i­cal strat­egy in Asia, where China is in­creas­ingly flex­ing its mus­cles as it seeks mil­i­tary clout com­men­su­rate with its eco­nomic might. But last week’s in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile (ICBM) test put ma­jor US cities in­clud­ing Chicago and Los An­ge­les within range of a po­ten­tial at­tack from the nu­clear-armed North. Now South Korean me­dia and ex­perts fear that could cast a cloud over US com­mit­ment to the al­liance, long de­scribed as “rock solid” by both sides.

“Would the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­tect us from an at­tack from the North when do­ing so could risk putting the US in dan­ger of a nu­clear at­tack?” JoongAng Ilbo, a ma­jor Seoul news­pa­per, said in an editorial. It was only “a mat­ter of time” be­fore the North de­vel­ops a fully-op­er­a­tional, nu­clear-tipped mis­sile ca­pa­ble of hit­ting the US, it said. And at that point, it con­cluded gloomily, the an­swer “may not be yes”.

There re­main doubts whether the North has mas­tered the tech­nol­ogy needed for a mis­sile war­head to sur­vive re-en­try into the Earth’s at­mos­phere, or if it can minia­tur­ize a nu­clear weapon to fit into a nose cone. But it claims to have done so, and has un­doubt­edly made rapid tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances since Kim Jong-Un came to power in 2011, with the young leader over­see­ing three nu­clear tests and a string of mis­sile launches. The North has for decades de­manded the US sign a peace treaty with Py­ongyang and with­draw its troops from the South. Vis­it­ing US politi­cians al­ways pledge that Wash­ing­ton is com­mit­ted to the al­liance-Vice-Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, who toured the Demil­i­ta­rized Zone that di­vides the two Koreas in April, called it “iron­clad and im­mutable”. But South Korea’s top-sell­ing daily Cho­sun Ilbo ques­tioned those re­as­sur­ances fol­low­ing the ICBM test.

It was “hard to ex­pect the US to help the South” if that risked a nu­clear at­tack on Amer­ica, it said in an editorial Mon­day, and fol­lowed up Tues­day warn­ing: “The worst-case sce­nario is US troops with­draw­ing from the Korean penin­sula. “That is what North Korea ul­ti­mately wants,” it added. “For South Kore­ans who have grown used to decades of pro­tec­tion from the US Forces Korea, that prospect is al­most unimag­in­able. But the re­al­ity is that things are head­ing in that very di­rec­tion.”

Au­gust cri­sis?

At the same time, South Kore­ans fear the pos­si­bil­ity of a pre-emp­tive strike by the US against the North, which could trig­ger dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences even with­out Py­ongyang re­sort­ing to nu­clear weapons. It has massed con­ven­tional ar­tillery within range of Seoul, which could in­flict cat­a­strophic dam­age on the cap­i­tal be­fore be­ing neu­tral­ized. The US has hard­ened its stance over the North since Friday’s test, with its am­bas­sador to the UN, Nikki Ha­ley, say­ing: “The time for talk is over.”

In­flu­en­tial US Se­na­tor Lind­sey Gra­ham said Tues­day that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump had told him he would go to war to pre­vent Py­ongyang de­vel­op­ing a long-range nu­clear-armed mis­sile, even if that meant disas­ter for the penin­sula. “He’s got to choose between home­land se­cu­rity and re­gional sta­bil­ity,” Gra­ham said in an in­ter­view with NBC. “If there’s go­ing to be a war to stop him, it will be over there. If thou­sands die, they’re go­ing to die over there. They’re not go­ing to die here. And he has told me that to my face.” Ex­perts say a months-long con­flict on the Korean penin­sula, even us­ing only con­ven­tional arms, could leave a mil­lion dead or in­jured be­fore US and South Korean forces pre­vailed. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son later in­sisted the US was not try­ing to top­ple the Kim regime. “We are not your en­emy. We’re not your threat, but you are pre­sent­ing an un­ac­cept­able threat to us, and we have to re­spond,” he said. Je­ung Young-Tae, direc­tor of mil­i­tary stud­ies at the South’s Dongyang Univer­sity, said Py­ongyang had crossed a “red line” with its lat­est mis­sile achieve­ments.

“Whether we want it or not, the risk of uni­lat­eral mil­i­tary action by the US can­not be ruled out at this point,” Je­ung said. The pos­si­bil­ity of a mil­i­tary con­flict was “big­ger than ever be­fore”, he added. Some ob­servers fear an “Au­gust cri­sis”. Later this month the South and US are due to begin an an­nual joint army drill long crit­i­cized as a re­hearsal for in­va­sion by the North-which could re­spond with a ma­jor provo­ca­tion. —AFP

PANMUNJOM: In this photo tourists pose for pho­tos as a South Korean sol­dier stands guard in­side a pavil­ion at the Joint Se­cu­rity Area (JSA) within the Demil­i­ta­rized Zone (DMZ) sep­a­rat­ing North and South Korea. — AFP

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