The U.S. Navy’s dispatch of an aircraft carrier group to the Korean peninsula on Sunday was a clear challenge to Beijing and Pyongyang, but it’s causing some jitters in Seoul too. The New York Times reports:
South Korea’s government said on Tuesday that there would be no American pre-emptive military strike against North Korea, with a leading presidential candidate warning that no foreign countries, including the United States, should bring war to the Korean Peninsula.
Although officials in South Korea said the United States would never attack the North without first consulting the South Korean government, a confluence of events in the last week has led some people to fear that the Trump administration might launch military strikes against the North’s nuclear and missile facilities.
“I make this clear to the Americans,” said Moon Jae-in, a leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, in a Facebook post that was widely cited in South Korean news media on Tuesday. “The safety of South Korea is as important as that of the United States. There should never be a pre-emptive strike without South Korean consent.”
Is Seoul going into full-scale panic mode because of the U.S. action, fearing an imminent pre-emptive strike? The Western headlines would seem to suggest so, but the reality is more complex.
In truth, there’s little fear in the corridors of power in Seoul that the Trump Administration would act against North Korea without ample consultation. The only people suggesting otherwise are opposition figures like left-leaning, dovish presidential candidate Moon, who has lately been slipping in the polls to Awn Cheol-soo, a centrist candidate who has staked out a more hawkish stance on Pyongyang. Seen in this light, Moon’s warning about U.S. unilateralism looks more like political grandstanding than a reflection of prevailing public sentiment.
In fact, something like the opposite may be closer to the truth: South Korean sentiment toward both Beijing and Pyongyang may be hardening. According to a March poll, South Koreans now regard China even less favorably than Japan, the result of Beijing’s heavy-handed campaign to economically squeeze Seoul over its deployment of the THAAD missile defense system.
Having failed to sway Seoul through bullying, Beijing now appears to think it needs to try active engagement. And indeed, that’s the context in which to view the other significant piece of news being reported today by the Wall Street Journal: China dispatched its top envoy on North Korea to Seoul the day after Trump sent the carrier strike group north from Singapore to discuss “strong, additional measures” the two countries could take to deter North Korea.
Time will tell, of course, how serious Beijing is about cooperating on North Korea. But the initial signs suggest that Trump’s tougher posture, far from producing panic in South Korea, might in fact be seen as pivotal to bringing China around to Seoul’s way of thinking.