Moon Vents Korea Frustration by Asserting Right to Veto U.S.

Updated on
  • Moon campaigned on pledge to talk, engage with North Korea
  • Tillerson says having a dialogue with Kim is ‘up to him’

Time is running out for the U.S. to stop North Korea from obtaining a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile. If that happens, a war between the two nations becomes more likely. This Bloomberg QuickTake Q&A video explains how it could play out.(video by Vicky Feng) (Source: Bloomberg)

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in has signaled his country will no longer stay quiet as tensions escalate between the U.S. and North Korea.

In a forceful speech on Tuesday, Moon asserted the right to veto any military action against Kim Jong Un’s regime, saying that decision should be made by “ourselves and not by anyone else.” He vowed to prevent war at any cost -- a statement that drew a sharp contrast with President Donald Trump, who has warned of “fire and fury” if North Korea continues to threaten the U.S.

“Moon’s speech speaks to his frustration, and his nation’s wider frustration -- and that is the perennial problem that they are not masters of their own destiny when it comes to North Korean geopolitics,” said Euan Graham, a director at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. “The U.S. now sees itself as the primary concern and the South Koreans as a secondary concern.”

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Traditional havens such as gold and the yen slumped after Moon’s vow to avert a conflict. The CBOE Volatility Index, also known as the VIX, continued to tumble.

Moon’s speech risks exacerbating a rift between the U.S. and South Korea over the best approach to dealing with North Korea. Any divisions among America and its allies may further embolden Kim, who is seeking the ability to strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon as a way to deter an invasion that could overthrow his regime.

The statement came after U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned in Washington Monday that it would be “game on” for war if North Korea fired missiles that hit the U.S. or its territories, including the Pacific island of Guam.

North Korea’s state-run news agency reported on Tuesday that Kim would wait “a little more” before carrying through with a threat to fire four missiles over Japan into waters near Guam, home to key U.S. military bases in the Pacific.

Moon Jae-in

Photographer: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

War Exercises

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters in Washington Tuesday that prospects for a diplomatic solution depend on Kim. “We continue to be interested in finding a way to get dialogue, but that’s up to him,” he said.

Tensions may yet increase further ahead of U.S.-South Korea military drills slated to start Aug. 21. Some 50,000 South Korean soldiers and about 25,000 U.S. troops participated last year over two weeks in the so-called Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises.

Moon, a former human-rights lawyer whose parents fled North Korea during the Korean War, took power in May promising a softer approach to Pyongyang after nine years of conservative rule that ended in a messy impeachment trial. He raised questions about a U.S. missile shield, pushed for dialogue with Kim and sought to mend ties with China, North Korea’s main ally and benefactor.

Just a few months later, however, North Korea’s tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles forced him to embrace the missile shield and agree to tighter sanctions against Kim. His calls for a peace treaty and dialogue have been drowned out by the war of words between Trump and Kim.

Read more about Moon’s time in South Korea’s special forces

The Moon administration’s evaluation of the situation on the peninsula “was quite naive,” said Kim Dong-yub, an analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul. “They simply thought the North would be more nice and slow-paced when they took office, but seven missiles later -- they’re obviously overwhelmed.”

Even worse for Moon, some U.S. officials have signaled that they’d be willing to tolerate collateral damage in Seoul to protect the American homeland from a nuclear attack. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, told NBC News that Trump told him that “if thousands die, they’re going to die over there.” Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month that it was “unimaginable” for North Korea to develop a nuclear-tipped ICBM.

Launch of a Hwasong-14 missile in North Korea released to the media on July 28.

Photographer: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP Photo

Seoul’s 10 million people are within firing range of North Korea’s artillery, and would be likely to suffer the brunt of the first retaliatory blows in a U.S. strike. While the city regularly shrugs off North Korea’s threats to turn it into a “sea of fire” -- and Moon’s approval rating has stayed above 70 percent -- Trump’s rhetoric spurred more calls for the president to get tough.

‘Begging and Pleas’

“Peace can’t be secured by begging and pleas," the conservative-leaning Chosun Ilbo, one of South Korea’s biggest newspapers, wrote in an editorial published Tuesday before Moon’s speech. Korea JoongAng Ilbo said on Aug. 12 that his administration appears “helpless.”

One problem for Moon is that North Korea has little interest in talking to South Korea, in part because Kim sees the U.S. and its nuclear capability as a much bigger threat to his regime. The U.S. has almost 30,000 troops in South Korea, and protects it with a so-called nuclear umbrella.

Another irritation for Moon is that the U.S. calls the shots if hostilities break out, a legacy of the Korean War in the 1950s. While plans to transfer full operational control to South Korea were agreed on in 2005, the transition has been repeatedly delayed because of budgetary constraints and rising tensions.

Protest against the deployment of the THAAD system in Seoul on Aug. 15.

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Moon has pushed to complete the handover during his five-year term. On a visit to the White House in June, Moon and Trump agreed to “expeditiously enable the conditions-based transfer of wartime operational control” of South Korean forces.

Moon’s concerns about autonomy are recurrent in South Korean politics because of colonial legacies in Asia and the continued importance of the country’s alliance with the U.S., said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul.

“In the present context, Moon is more focused on reassuring his domestic population that war will be averted,” Easley said. “And signaling to North Korea that it should recognize the South as a dialogue partner.”

— With assistance by Anthony Capaccio, Zhe Huang, and Nick Wadhams

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