Gwynne Dyer | Korean crisis - why now?
Apart from Donald Trump's need for a dramatic foreign-policy initiative, is there any good reason why we are having a crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons testing now?
If the Pyongyang regime is really planning an underground nuclear test soon, as Washington alleges, it will be the sixth bomb test it has carried out, not the first. That hardly qualifies as a new development that requires urgent action. The same goes for its ballistic missile tests, which have been ongoing for many years. Nothing new is going on in North Korea.
In South Korea, on the other hand, things may be about to change a lot.
The candidate predicted to win the presidency in Tuesday's election, Moon Jae-in, favours a much softer policy towards North Korea. He has even promised to reopen industrial and tourist projects in North Korea that were financed by South Korea under the last Democratic (centre-left) government.
A decade ago, when Moon's Democratic Party was still in power in Seoul, he was chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun and the so-called Sunshine Policy of reconciliation with North Korea was the order of the day. The goal was to create commercial, financial and personal ties between the two Koreas, and to that end South Korea sent aid and investment to the North.
It's impossible to say whether that would eventually have led to a less tense and militarised situation in the Korean peninsula, because in the 2008 election, the conservatives won and scrapped the Sunshine Policy. The past nine years under right-wing governments have seen North-South relations refrozen and the investments in North Korea closed down by Seoul.
In this week's election, however, Moon Jae-in is far in the lead, with the Eurasia Group, the world's largest political risk consultancy, giving him an 80 per cent chance of winning the presidency. If he wins, he says he will reopen economic ties with North Korea in a policy his advisers call Sunshine 2.0.
This runs directly contrary to Trump's policy of tightening economic sanctions against the North and even threatening military action to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons programme. So the question is: Has the Trump administration pushed a military confrontation with North Korea to the top of its foreign-policy agenda in order to pre-empt Moon Jae-in's new Sunshine policy?
One clue could be the sudden rush to deploy the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system in South Korea before the election. It's a system designed to intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles of the sort that North Korea might use to deliver nuclear weapons on South Korea (and maybe Japan) if it ever managed to make its nuclear weapons small enough to fit on them.
A reasonable precaution, perhaps; but THAAD was originally scheduled to be installed in South Korea between August and October of this year. Then suddenly it arrived in the country in March, and was 'operational'; (at least in theory) by last month. Moon will now have great difficulty in reversing that decision, assuming that he becomes president, and the North Koreans are predictably waxing hysterical about it.
On the other hand, Trump shocked the South Koreans by announcing at the end of April that South Korea would have to pay US$1 billion for the THAAD system, despite an existing agreement that the US would bear the cost. He also declared that he was going to renegotiate the existing free-trade agreement between the two countries. Which suggests that there is no clever plan, just the usual stumbling around in the dark.
Whether the US is deliberately manipulating events or not, Moon Jae-in will be in a difficult situation if he becomes president. He quite rightly believes that there is no need for a crisis this year to resolve a problem that has been simmering away (but never boiling over) for at least 15 years, but unless he goes along with it, he will find himself in a confrontation with Donald Trump.
Could Moon win that kind of confrontation? He could if he has strong support at home, and his party already controls the South Korean parliament. Public opinion is harder to gauge, with the electorate generally divided more or less evenly between a hard and a soft approach to North Korea. But they all agree that they don't want a war in which they would be the primary victims, and Trump's style can be quite frightening.
- Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.