With an aggressive show of force, Seoul has recently conducted a live-drill near its border with North Korea in response to the new and unprecedented missile launched over Hokkaido before splashing in the Sea of Japan on Tuesday morning. In the aftermath of the launch, South Korea’s military forces have unveiled an overwhelming force displaying in full their capability to effectively retaliate against Pyongyang’s attacks. The Moon Administration has pressed its adamant desire to quickly switch to an offensive posture aiming to the rapid increase of the level of provocation that has characterized North Korea’s belligerent attitude in the last few months. Indiscretions of the plans of launch a preventive attack against the North Korea’s facilities or infiltrate highly trained forces to decapitate North Korea’s core leadership have widely circulated in the last few days, raising questions about the evolution of the strategic scenario in the Korean peninsula.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have increased in the recent months after the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile program have been saluted by new and dreadful tests. Last week, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in called for the establishment of a modern and powerful military force able to contrast quickly any military provocations coming from Pyongyang. South Korean political elites remain extremely concerned about the catastrophic consequences of a direct confrontation with its bellicose neighbor while according to Soul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) Pyongyang will be carrying out the preparations for a new nuclear test.

Earlier, this month, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in expressed his concern about the rising military escalation in the Korean peninsula, stressing that any unilateral military actions the North Korea decided without first consulting Seoul would be intolerable – highlighting the centrality of Seoul in any decision that could alter the Korean peninsula’s future strategic posture. In the last few weeks, Pyongyang has announced the plan to launch four missiles toward the American base in Guam while indiscretions leaked from the U.S. intelligence indicates that Pyongyang might have already acquired several miniaturized warheads. The possibility that North Korea will be carrying an additional missile test into the waters of Guam has emerged once again in a recent note by the KCNA, a clear signal of North Korea’s leadership resolute attempt to project strength at any costs.

Mutual proclaims of total annihilation have been echoing for weeks, pushing both North Korea and the United States to the brink of military confrontation. President Moon Jae-in has called several times for a diplomatic solution, stressing his desire to send a special envoy to North Korea in an attempt to negotiating the resuming of talk on its nuclear weapon program. This announcement has marked his first hundred days in office and comes during a delicate phase in which the audacity of North Korea’s nuclear program remains the most endurable and daunting challenge to the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific.

President Moon Jae-in was elected last May after the turbulent political turmoil that preceded the fall and the persecution of the former President Park Guen-hye. The return of South Korea’s progressive force to power has certainly underlined the potential upcoming shifts for the U.S-ROK alliance as anticipated by President Moon’s desire to redefine the strategic role of Seoul. Albeit pursuing the entente with its closest military ally, Moon’s initial decision to consider a recalibration of the defense cooperation with Washington and the suspension of the THAAD deployment in the wake of the public opinion protest has been ultimately abandoned after the rapid escalation of tensions in the last two months. Moon Administration’s orientation toward a more independent strategic role of South Korea has been bolstered by his decision to advance the creation of an indigenous Korean Air and Missile Defense System that would not be part of the U.S. joint security architecture designed to counter any upcoming pre-emptive strikes launched by North Korea. Emphasis on the strategic preparedness has echoed again this week, with the announcement of Seoul’s plan to increase 2018 military budget up to $47.78. This new approach represents a vibrant element in the evolution of the role of Seoul in defining the contours of the strategic scenario in the Korean Peninsula under the auspices of the new Administration.

When it was relegated to the opposition during Park Administration, the Democratic Party of Korea (the Minjoo Party) voiced several times its concern when not openly opposed any further military engagement with Washington in response to the increasing strategic alteration of the Korean peninsula. The Minjoo Party has strongly advocated the gradual reunification of the Korean peninsula, through diplomatic and economic engagement. Relations with Pyongyang have declined since 2016, when President Park’s trustpolitik was abandoned in favor of a more assertive approach, aimed at containing and opposing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions through diplomatic isolation and sanctions – culminating with the closing of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Since then, the Minjoo Party has strongly opposed a series of measures such as the deployment of the THAAD, Seoul’s participation in joint drills and also the establishing of the intelligence-sharing General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Tokyo, considered as additional sources of tensions in dealing with the recalcitrant North Korea’s regime. Albeit in the past the Minjoo position on security has been affected by a certain degree of hesitation in expanding the strategic role and commitment of Seoul, the Moon Administration has adopted a more robust approach in dealing with Pyongyang. Despite the vacillating relations with Tokyo, mostly affected by a different interpretation the legacy of Japan’s military occupation of Korea during the war times, Moon Administration’s has renewed Seoul’s desire to seek close cooperation with Tokyo through the renewal of the GSOMIA agreement that will allow the two countries to share secret military information on North Korea’s nuclear and military threat.

Nevertheless, this recalibration represents a more distinct departure from Moon Administration’s initial desire to fulfill a positive diplomatic engagement, considered critical to foster the process of political and economic changes initially inaugurated by Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine Policy. In the early 2000’s when both Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyu served as presidents, there was a strong consensus on the idea that the expansion of the economic ties with the North Korea would have produced economic prosperity for the country, fundamental cornerstones for a wider diplomatic engagement, but also a critical element for political reforms that notably accompanied the successful democratic breakthrough from authoritarian regimes in South Korea and Taiwan at the end of the 1990’s. Yet, through the decades, North Korean elites has shown an adamant ability to prevent any alteration of the power structure, containing socio-economic shifts of its core foundations by relying on restrictive social policies, control over information and widespread repression of hostile elements that could affect the solidity of Ten Principles of the Establishment of the One-Ideology System, the firm ideological pillar of Kim’s divine right.

North Korea’s resistance to any negotiations prior the recognition of Pyongyang’s legitimate nuclear power status and the normalization of relations with Washington have so far compromised any attempts to foster a diplomatic solution to the growing instability of the Korean peninsula. Over the decades the volatility of Washington’s engagement produced few results in curbing North Korea’s daunting nuclear ambitions and the ambiguity of the Chinese political elites, adamant in preventing any changes in the status quo have determined the conditions that have gradually encouraged North Korean leadership to pursue further the development of its nuclear capability.

While the Moon Administration has shown its desire to foster dialogue and promote a peaceful solution to the never-ending confrontations with Pyongyang, the pursuit of a different strategic trajectory could be critical in containing North Korea’s rising hostilities – or at least induce Pyongyang to be more wary about the repercussion caused by its aggressive behavior. More importantly, Washington must reaffirm its solid strategic commitment towards Seoul and Tokyo, assuring them of American support and perhaps adopting a more defined strategy against any additional provocations coming from Pyongyang. This vision could not only instill renewed faith in allies, who are constantly wary of the declining American engagement. The move could therefore prevent any additional strategic shifts that would not merely jeopardize the stability of the Korean peninsula, but ultimately affect the role and the security architecture of Washington in the Asia-Pacific region.

About the author

DANIELE ERMITO holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, the DPRK and Chinese foreign policy.