SEOUL — North Korea is saying all the right things ahead of this month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, where, in a sign of improved relations, it will join its southern neighbor in the festivities. But not everyone is buying into Kim Jong Un’s charm offensive.
President Donald Trump, for one, used a large portion of his first State of the Union last week to lambast Pyongyang as “depraved,” in a speech that critics described as eerily similar to the “axis of evil” one made by George W. Bush before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. North Korea made a similar accusation Tuesday. And behind the scenes, Trump’s administration reportedly continues to mull a plan to launch a limited “bloody nose” strike against North Korea.
With all eyes on the Olympic Games, murmurs of a possible U.S. military intervention on the Korean Peninsula hasn’t quite thrown the famously imperturbable South Korean public into a panic. But it has struck a nerve among the country’s policymakers and government officials, who worry about what's in store after the games conclude.
“It’s a forewarning of how the Trump administration will handle the North Korean nuclear and missile issue in the future,” said Yoo Seung-min, chairperson of the center-right Bareun Party, at a recent parliamentary meeting. “War on the peninsula could be started by both North Korea and the United States.”
The sudden and mysterious withdrawal last Tuesday of the United States’ pick for ambassador to South Korea, Georgetown University professor Victor Cha, further stoked these concerns throughout Seoul’s political elite. A widely respected, hard-nosed diplomat who had already been approved by South Korea in a process called agrément, Cha was reportedly dropped after disagreeing with Trump administration officials over the “bloody nose” strategy. For South Korea, the sudden nixing of Cha sent an ominous message: If Cha isn’t hawkish enough for the Trump administration, then who is?
“We need to entertain the possibility that the United States might risk some kind of military action here."
Trump recently reassured South Korean President Moon Jae-in that the United States was not considering a “bloody nose” strike on North Korea, but former South Korean government officials told VICE News that it was a reminder that the delicate equilibrium with Pyongyang has inextricably changed. With Kim’s nuclear missile program nearing completion, the United States is no longer facing a threat-by-proxy but rather the possibility of direct attack on its own soil. For South Korea, this has introduced an uneasy new reality, in which the United States might be more willing to take matters into its own hands despite the risk of triggering a war that could leave tens of thousands dead in Korea.
“Since the start of the Trump administration, my sense is that the American perspective of the North Korea nuclear issue completely changed, especially after the Hwasong 14 and 15 missile launches last year,” said Yoon Young-kwan, South Korea’s Foreign Minister from 2003 to 2004. “They no longer see the issue as one limited to this region or to allied territory, but a direct threat from North Korea against the United States itself.”
Although North Korea claims to be a “complete” nuclear state, analysts disagree about whether Pyongyang has proved it can successfully launch a long-range missile fitted with a nuclear warhead that is capable of striking the United States. But that day is no longer far away, and when it comes, it will likely lead to U.S. action, analysts said.
“I think if North Korea carried out this [final test], the United States would in all likelihood respond with military action,” said Yoon. The former foreign minister cited Sen. Lindsey Graham’s comments from August — “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there” — as an indication of Seoul’s new reality.
“We need to entertain the possibility that the United States might risk some kind of military action here in order to prevent an attack on their home soil,” Yoon said.
For South Korea, what comes after such military action is the real concern. “Of course we’re in the greatest danger,” said Kim Jin-hyung, a retired Navy admiral and former strategist for the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff. “North Korea can’t realistically attack the United States at this time, which ultimately means that we can expect retaliatory military action against South Korea.”
“There is a chance that Kim Jong Un will interpret the attack not as a one-off event but as an early signal of war.”
Although the premise of the “bloody nose” is that North Korea would stop short of launching a counterattack, those like Cha have said that’s a bet too risky to make. And South Korean government and military experts believe that South Korea would bear the brunt if Kim decided to retaliate.
“The worst-case scenario would be North Korea using their long-range artillery against Seoul, which would mean a full-blown war. But there is also the possibility of more contained and localized retaliation, such as the shelling of South Korean territory near the DMZ,” said Chung Kyung-yung, a former army colonel who helped craft strategy at the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command.
Though expert opinion is divided on how well the ensuing escalation ladder could be controlled, for South Korea, a “bloody nose” strike carries the inherent risk of spiraling out of control.
“There is a chance that Kim Jong Un will interpret the attack not as a one-off event but as an early signal of war,” said Yoon Young-kwan. “We would have to accept the possibility of escalation.”
And then there are the longer-term diplomatic consequences to consider. As Cha wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post, “A strike also would not stem the threat of proliferation but rather exacerbate it, turning what might be a North Korean money-making endeavor into a vengeful effort intended to equip other bad actors against us.” According to Yoon, it might also “erode North Korea’s willingness to talk and look for solutions,” putting South Korea “on a course dictated by the logic of militarism.”
But if the peninsula is truly hurtling toward military conflict, few ordinary South Koreans seem to believe it. To South Koreans who are long accustomed to the ever-present tensions with North Korea, talk of a “bloody nose” is just another headline, soon to be lost in the noise. There have been no evacuation drills, no protests, and no visible signs of alarm.
Of the handful of South Koreans approached to be interviewed for this story, only one of them had heard of the developments at all. His answer was blunt and laced with a familiar apathy: “I think it’s just an attempt to scare North Korea,” said 28-year-old Lee Jun-sang. “I don’t think it’s very likely that the Trump administration will actually do it.”
Max S. Kim is a Seoul-based freelance journalist covering technology and politics.
Cover image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance at the machine plant managed by Jon Tong Ryol in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang August 10, 2014. REUTERS/KCNA