North Korea's rapidly accelerating nuclear weapons program is beginning to pose a grave challenge for liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose dovish proposals for engagement have been met by silence and two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in less than a month.
Throughout the election campaign and his presidency that began in May, Moon has persistently expressed a desire to reach out to North Korea. But in the wake of the North's latest ICBM test, a stern-looking Moon on Saturday sounded more like his conservative predecessor as he ordered his troops to conduct a live-fire exercise with U.S. forces and endorsed stronger pressure and sanctions against Pyongyang.
On Saturday, the U.S. confirmed completition of military exercises with its South Korean and Japanese counterparts. The U.S. Pacific Air Forces said in a statement that South Korean fighter jets escorted a pair of B-1 bombers as they performed a low-pass over a South Korean air base. The mission, the U.S. said, was in direct response to North Korea's "escalatory launch" of intercontinental ballistic missiles on July 3 and July 28.
South Korea's president, meanwhile, told government officials to schedule talks with Washington over increasing the warhead limits of South Korean missiles.
In a dramatic policy reversal, Moon ordered his military to talk with U.S. commanders in South Korea to temporarily place additional launchers of a contentious U.S. missile defense system, which was seen as a sign that Moon was ready to get tougher on the North. He likely has no other choice as it is well past the point where Seoul could afford being seen as "begging" Pyongyang for talks, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University and a policy adviser to Moon.
"Ministries related to foreign policy and security must work with our allies including the United States to ensure that today's provocation is met by a stern international response, such as U.N. Security Council measures," Yoon Young-chan, Moon's senior press secretary, quoted him as saying during a National Security Council meeting. Yoon said Moon also directed government officials to consider the possibility of unilateral sanctions against the North.
Through statements released by his office and later by the Foreign Ministry, Moon's government made it clear it isn't giving up on the hopes for talks just yet. But Moon also said the North's latest launch has the potential to "fundamentally change" regional security dynamics and stressed the need for "strong and realistic measures" that could sting Pyongyang and repel its nuclear ambitions.
Moon has criticized the hard-line policies under a decade of conservative rule in Seoul, which he says did nothing to prevent the North's progress in nuclear weapons and missiles and only reduced Seoul's voice in international efforts to deal with its rival.
But some South Korean analysts believe Moon might end up in the same policy rut as his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who initially vowed to show more flexibility in dealing with North Korea before it conducted two nuclear tests and began what has become a torrent of weapons tests in 2016. South Korea doesn't have many options for dealing with North Korea under ruler Kim Jong Un, who seems to have little interest in meaningful talks with Seoul before he reaches his desired goals in nuclear weapons and missiles, the experts say.
Moon made his most ambitious proposals for engagement in the aftermath of North Korea's first ICBM test on July 4. He reaffirmed his commitment to dialogue in a speech in Berlin days after the launch and then came back to Seoul to propose military and Red Cross talks between the rivals to reduce animosities across their border and resume temporary reunions of aging relative separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. But the North spent the past weeks ridiculing Moon's comments and ignoring his talk proposals before conducting its second ICBM test Friday night.
"North Korea works with its own timetable that is dictated by its plans for nuclear weapons and missile development, and won't be influenced by any South Korean offer for talks or strengthening of sanctions," said Park Hyung-joong, a senior researcher at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification.
Koh from Dongguk University expressed a similar view, saying that the ICBM tests clearly show that North Korea sees the current situation as a matter between Pyongyang and Washington, and not solvable at the inter-Korean level. He said it would be a mistake to continue seeing North Korea's missile tests as demonstrations aimed at wresting diplomatic concessions when the country is pursuing a real nuclear deterrent against the United States.
"Talks will be difficult. North Korea has yet to respond to the South's proposals and the South can't be seen begging for talks," Koh said. "The ball is now with the Trump administration and the situation will be determined by the options it takes ... All South Korea can do now is to conduct its own military drills to show force and strengthen its defense, such as implementing THAAD."
Washington and Seoul originally planned to complete the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system by the end of the year. But after taking office in May, Moon had pushed back the deadline by introducing stricter environmental reviews on the site to ease the concerns of locals, who express fear over rumored health hazards linked to the system's radar. During the campaign, Moon had said that Seoul should reconsider the THAAD deployment because it has angered China, South Korea's biggest trade partner, which sees the system as a security threat.
President Donald Trump tweeted about his disappointment in China Saturday night, saying that China has done nothing for the U.S. with North Korea, "just talk."
"We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!" Trump tweeted.
A THAAD battery consists of six launchers and currently two launchers are operational in rural Seongju. Moon's office said Saturday that the environmental reviews will go on as planned even after the four additional launchers are placed.