North Korea continues to test missiles while the US and South Korea hold high-profile exercises.
Both sides say they are conducting defensive actions in the face of aggressive adversaries and will continue to do so.
But conducting that activity amid rising tensions means one wrong move could turn into a full-on war.
The situation on the Korean Peninsula seems to be deteriorating. In 2022, North Korea launched a record number of missile testsaiming to demonstrate its capabilities in delivering conventional or nuclear payloads to more distant targets, potentially including the US mainland.
This trend has continued into this year, including in late February, with North Korea launching another one ICBM and cruise missilesand the US and South Korea holding a nuclear-themed tabletop exercise and conducting a joint air drill over the peninsula.
On Thursday, Pyongyang fired another ballistic missile. The tit-for-tat scenario shows no signs of de-escalation, as both sides claim they are conducting defensive actions in the face of aggressive adversaries and have pledged to continue these operations.
The potential for this scenario to spiral out of control due to some line-crossing incident, even an unintentional one, carries a risk that far outweighs any potential benefit that could be gained by continuing down the current path.
North Korea errantly firing missiles near their neighbors carries the inherent danger that there could be a misfire that kills civilians or military personnel. A comparable situation could arise if one side mistakes the other’s military exercise for an act of war. Either of these circumstances would likely entail a response by the afflicted nation and possibly unfreeze the Korean War.
The world recently experienced a scare similar to these hypothetical scenarios when a Ukrainian anti-air missile accidentally killed two civilians in Poland, sparking fears that Russia had attacked a NATO member and that Article 5 would be invoked. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, the error was revealed, and World War III was averted. There is no guarantee that a similar situation in Korea would play out that way.
Renewed conflict in Korea would radically alter the geopolitical status quo in East Asia, undoubtedly rattle China, and push the US, South Korea, and possibly Japan, to spend a great deal of resources in a war that would result in massive military and civilian casualties. .
This prospect should prod US policy makers to consider why they are choosing to push forward with the current approach to North Korea. One does not have to sympathize with the Kim regime to realize that the costs of a war are not worth the unrealistic goal of denuclearizing North Korea. The results of past decades spent toppling unsavory governments should have made it clear that these adventures never go as planned.
The threat that North Korea poses to American interests can be diminished by reducing the risk of unnecessary conflict by de-escalating the situation on the peninsula.
The US currently houses 28,500 military personnel in South Korea, along with some of the most advanced aircraft and hardware available. The presence of these forces on the peninsula, along with the drills they participate in, are at the forefront of Pyongyang’s justification for their continued provocative missile tests.
Making moves to reduce or even completely remove US military presence and action in Korea would help de-escalate the situation by denying North Korea this talking point, and, despite objections, would not leave South Korea defenseless to North Korean invasion nor the US mainland any more vulnerable to its missiles.
South Korea maintains a large and modern military that has kept its eyes focused on the 38th parallel since the fighting stopped and has the economic power to ensure that it can develop or purchase top-level military equipment.
Japan has recently embarked on a major military expansion, aiming to turn its Self-Defense Forces into a military better equipped to handle regional threats by increasing defense spending, readiness, and deterrence capabilities. The US would also remain safe from North Korea.
Considering that the Kim regime’s main goal is self-preservation, it is unlikely that North Korea would be any more motivated to self-immolate by launching a war against at least one, possibly two wealthy neighbors that are shoring up their own defenses while Tokyo and Seoul is under the US nuclear umbrella. Stronger militaries in South Korea and Japan would strengthen regional resolve against Chinese provocation.
There are already actions being taken by the Biden administration that show how maintaining a massive force in South Korea is not a top priority for the US, such as the recent decision to transfer artillery ammunition from South Korea to resupply Ukrainian stockpiles.
Building off this move towards a troop drawdown would not put the US or its allies at an increased risk of attack by North Korea and may reopen their desire to engage in dialogue that could result in a reduction or cessation of missile tests.
The path of de-escalation can do far more to ensure peace on the Korean peninsula than continuing a status quo that incurs unnecessary risk and prevents the US from focusing on matters more pressing to its national security interests.
Chad Kunkle is a recipient of a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in international affairs from Florida State University and a former intern at the Hudson Institute.
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