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Time to ease tensions

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By Kang Seung-woo

There are no signs yet of efforts in the Yoon Suk Yeol administration to de-escalate rising tensions with North Korea despite the northern neighbor's escalation in provocations, including an expansion of its nuclear capabilities.

The Kim Jong-un regime ended 2022 with a record number of ballistic missile launches, firing missiles on 38 separate occasions. Last September, it also legalized the use of its nuclear weapons preemptively against foes threatening its leadership.

Entering this year, its saber-rattling has continued as Pyongyang test-fired a new solid-fuel Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in April and it launched a military spy satellite, Wednesday ― although its rocket crashed into the sea. It vowed to conduct another launch as soon as possible. The satellite launch is seen as a disguised ballistic missile test because both use the same technology.

Amid growing North Korean threats, the South Korean government has responded by strengthening extended deterrence with the United States, as evidenced by the deployment of U.S. strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula and the resumption of large-scale combined military exercises.

And its efforts toward a more tangible U.S. extended nuclear deterrence reached fever pitch in April when President Yoon and U.S. President Joe Biden unveiled the Washington Declaration, under which the allies agreed to form a nuclear consultative group (NCG) and send U.S. a nuclear-armed submarine to the peninsula if necessary. The NCG is kind of a platform to address doubts over the credibility of Washington's extended deterrence commitment.

Securing stronger extended deterrence from the U.S. is an undisputed diplomatic accomplishment under the Yoon administration, which seeks to achieve peace through the superiority of overwhelming force.

Despite the feat, however, the president's hardline stance on North Korea barely stopped the Stalinist state from swiftly modernizing its nuclear arsenal, let alone discourage its nuclear ambitions.

The South Korean government came up with its "audacious initiative" to entice Pyongyang to denuclearize. It promises the North Korean government an unprecedented level of economic support in exchange for ultimately giving up nuclear weapons but to no avail. It was even derided as "foolish" by the North Korean leader's sister, Kim Yo-jong.

Compounding matters, North Korea has refused to answer daily calls via an inter-Korean liaison line and a military hotline since April 7. This has caused uncertainties over the prospects of inter-Korean relations given that the hotlines are the last resort by which the two Koreas can confirm each other's intentions in the event of an unforeseen situation.

North Korea is, no doubt, mainly responsible for the current stalemate in inter-Korean relations. But it seems that South Korea and the U.S. no longer place much importance on finding a driving force for dialogue, with their unconditional and insistent rhetoric with the North ringing hollow.

In his April interview with NBC News, Yoon said it was "unrealistic" to expect a nuclear deal with North Korea anytime soon.

Acknowledging that it is not easy to find momentum in South Korea for the resumption of talks with North Korea amid inter-Korean confrontation, diplomatic observers are concerned that it is not a desirable situation because a conflict is highly likely by accident or miscalculation.

Amid the escalation on the peninsula, South Koreans seem to favor a diplomatic approach.

According to a poll by the Peaceful Unification Advisory Council (PUAC) in May, 34.7 percent of 1,000 respondents said Seoul's continuous dialogue proposal to Pyongyang was the best crisis management option on the peninsula, followed by enhanced international cooperation at 21.1 percent and military buildup at 15.8 percent. The PUAC is a presidential consultative body set up to draw up policies on democratic and peaceful unification.

Kang Seung-woo is political editor at The Korea Times.

Kang Seung-woo


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