Moon's Liberation Day speech speaks of South Korea's frustration over North Korea geopolitics

South Korean President Moon Jae In, delivers a speech during celebrations of the 72th anniversary of Korea's Independence Day.
South Korean President Moon Jae In, delivers a speech during celebrations of the 72th anniversary of Korea's Independence Day. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (Bloomberg) - South Korean President Moon Jae In has signalled his country will no longer stay quiet as tensions escalate between the US and North Korea.

In a forceful speech to mark the anniversary of the nation's liberation from Japanese military rule in 1945 on Tuesday (Aug 15), Moon asserted the right to veto any military action against Kim Jong Un's regime, saying that decision should be made by "ourselves and not by anyone else".

He vowed to prevent war at any cost - a statement that drew a sharp contrast with President Donald Trump, who has warned of "fire and fury" if North Korea continues to threaten the US.

"Moon's speech speaks to his frustration, and his nation's wider frustration - and that is the perennial problem that they are not masters of their own destiny when it comes to North Korean geopolitics," said Euan Graham, a director at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

"The US now sees itself as the primary concern and the South Koreans as a secondary concern."

Moon's speech risks exacerbating a rift between the US and South Korea over the best approach to dealing with North Korea. Any divisions among America and its allies may further embolden Kim, who is seeking the ability to strike the US with a nuclear weapon as a way to deter an invasion that could overthrow his regime.

The statement came after US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis warned in Washington on Monday that it would be "game on" for war if North Korea fired missiles that hit the US or its territories, including the Pacific island of Guam.

North Korea's state-run news agency reported on Tuesday that Kim would wait "a little more" before carrying through with a threat to fire four missiles over Japan into waters near Guam, home to key US military bases in the Pacific.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters in Washington on Tuesday that prospects for a diplomatic solution depend on Kim.

"We continue to be interested in finding a way to get dialogue, but that's up to him," he said.

Tensions may yet increase further, ahead of US-South Korea military drills slated to start on Aug 21. Some 50,000 South Korean soldiers and about 25,000 US troops participated last year over two weeks in the so-called Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises.

China's Global Times newspaper, a state-run tabloid, was scathing of South Korea's decision to proceed with the drills.

"The drill will definitely provoke Pyongyang more, and Pyongyang is expected to make a more radical response," it said in an editorial.

"If South Korea really wants no war on the Korean peninsula, it should try to stop this military exercise."

Moon, a former human-rights lawyer whose parents fled North Korea during the Korean War, took power in May, promising a softer approach to Pyongyang after nine years of conservative rule that ended in a messy impeachment trial.

He raised questions about a US missile shield, pushed for dialogue with Kim and sought to mend ties with China, North Korea's main ally and benefactor.

Just a few months later, however, North Korea's tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) in July forced him to embrace the missile shield and agree to tighter sanctions against Kim. His calls for a peace treaty and dialogue have been drowned out by the war of words between Trump and Kim.

The Moon administration's evaluation of the situation on the peninsula "was quite naive", said Kim Dong Yub, an analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.

"They simply thought the North would be more nice and slow-paced when they took office, but seven missiles later - they're obviously overwhelmed."

Even worse for Moon, some US officials have signalled that they would be willing to tolerate collateral damage in Seoul to protect the American homeland from a nuclear attack.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, told NBC News that Trump told him that "if thousands die, they're going to die over there".

Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month that it was "unimaginable" for North Korea to develop a nuclear-tipped ICBM.

Seoul's 10 million people are within firing range of North Korea's artillery, and would be likely to suffer the brunt of the first retaliatory blows in a US strike.

While the city regularly shrugs off North Korea's threats to turn it into a "sea of fire" - and Moon's approval rating has stayed above 70 per cent - Trump's rhetoric spurred more calls for the President to get tough.

"Peace can't be secured by begging and pleas," the conservative-leaning Chosun Ilbo, one of South Korea's biggest newspapers, wrote in an editorial published on Tuesday before Moon's speech.

South Korean JoongAng Ilbo said on Aug 12 that his administration appears "helpless".

One problem for Moon is that North Korea has little interest in talking to South Korea, in part because Kim sees the US and its nuclear capability as a much bigger threat to his regime. The US has almost 30,000 troops in South Korea, and protects it with a so-called nuclear umbrella.

Another irritation for Moon is that the US calls the shots if hostilities break out, a legacy of the Korean War in the 1950s.

While plans to transfer full operational control to South Korea were agreed on in 2005, the transition has been repeatedly delayed because of budgetary constraints and rising tensions.

Moon has pushed to complete the handover during his five-year term. On a visit to the White House in June, Moon and Trump agreed to "expeditiously enable the conditions-based transfer of wartime operational control" of South Korean forces.

Moon's concerns about autonomy are recurrent in South Korean politics because of colonial legacies in Asia and the continued importance of the country's alliance with the US, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul.

"In the present context, Moon is more focused on reassuring his domestic population that war will be averted," Easley said.

"And signalling to North Korea that it should recognise the South as a dialogue partner."

Moon will hold a press conference on Thursday (Aug 17) to personally answer questions on various issues that will likely include North Korea's recent provocations and military threats.

The press conference marking Moon's first 100 days in office is also scheduled to be nationally televised. It is expected to involve some 300 journalists from local and foreign news outlets here.