The senseless death of 22-year-old American student Otto Warmbier, one week after his release from a North Korean prison camp, has once again laid bare the brutality of the isolated country’s regime. Even worse than the callous murder of Warmbier were reports two days later that Pyongyang had performed yet another rocket engine test that could be used on a future intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – one that could hit LA in just 30 minutes. Analysts predict Kim Jong-un will have this capability before President Trump completes his first term.
Unfortunately, at a time when the threat from Pyongyang looms bigger than ever, the one nation that should be standing most firmly by Washington’s side is getting distracted by a sideshow and failing to take decisive action. What Trump needs to do now is convince South Korea to form a united front with key allies and support secondary sanctions against countries that fail to comply with new UN Security Council measures against North Korea. Given the fact that Obama’s milquetoast policy of “strategic patience” has failed, it’s our last best option short of a complete war.
Against the backdrop of Kim Jong-un’s increasing aggression, you’d think that South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Washington on June 28th would be the perfect chance to clinch new initiatives to combat the North.
Unfortunately, Moon has chosen to focus his energies elsewhere. He’s revived an unnecessary feud with Japan over the issue of wartime “comfort women,” which had been settled in “final and irreversible” agreement in December 2015. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had expressed his “apologies and remorse” to the women for the suffering they endured, and the government promised to create a $8.3 million fund to support surviving comfort women. In return, Seoul agreed not to press any future claims and to discuss Tokyo’s dispute with activists who had erected a statue of a comfort woman near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
One might have thought the issue was settled. Yet inexplicably, Moon decided to pour gasoline onto the fire during his campaign, pledging to unwind the 2015 agreement if elected. In his first conversation with the Japanese premier, Moon moaned that his people could “not emotionally accept” all the terms of the agreement.
Now, the fight has even been brought to American shores, with a new statue commemorating comfort women set to be unveiled in the Atlanta, Georgia suburb of Brookhaven on Friday. The monument seems to serve little purpose in a city of 50,000 inhabitants other than to spark needless tensions with Japan. And while the city claims to be honoring women, some commentators have pointed out that the statue could wind up being an ironic distraction from Brookhaven’s own serious challenges. A local strip club, the Pink Pony, was investigated for human trafficking after a local man, Kenndric Roberts, was found to have kept eight women in confinement, which he forced to dance at the aforementioned club.
Whatever the case, by reopening old wounds in this needless way, activist groups and the South Korean government alike now run the risk of creating a stalemate with Japanese counterparts who had made a good-faith effort to put the dispute behind them and focus on more important geopolitical challenges.
What’s worse, Moon hasn’t only been bungling relations with Japan, but also with the US – at a time when he should be working with both allies to build a solid front against North Korea. For instance, at the top of the agenda when Moon meets Trump will be the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense System (THAAD), which the Park administration had agreed to set up to help protect against the threat from the north. As Moon campaigned on a platform to review that agreement, the US military had to make a mad rush to install the radar system and two launchers before he was elected. Later, Moon made a show of shock that four additional launchers were brought to South Korea without his knowledge, despite the fact that he knew that a complete antimissile battery includes six launchers. He’s since ordered the deployment to be paused while the government performs an environmental review.
Given Moon’s background, it’s little wonder perhaps that he is taking such an inanely pacifist stance. He’s a self-professed proponent of the so-called “sunshine policy” of engagement with North Korea, which favors gentle negotiation tactics over force. That policy was employed by former president Kim Dae-jung and maintained by another progressive, Roh Moo-hyun. Despite the policy’s failure, the new administration has decided to revive it, making a series of ill-advised overtures to Pyongyang. Earlier this month, the South Korean minister of sport proposed holding a series of events at the Winter Olympics within the North’s borders, going as far as suggesting the two nations field a joint team in the women’s ice hockey competition. As Kim’s arsenal of weapons grows, Seoul seems to believe the conflict can be resolved with a hockey stick.
But the sad truth is that if South Korea continues these kinds of policies, all-out war will soon be the only option left to bring an end to the threat from Pyongyang. If Trump wants to avoid this, he needs to convince Moon to see the light, mend relations with key allies, and work with them to step up secondary sanctions against the north. Warmbier’s needless martyrdom at the hands of this criminal government should provide the impetus for the Trump administration to make the decisive moves needed to dismantle the brewing nuclear conflict he’s inherited.