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North Korea Crisis

South Korea wary of US strike against North

Moon fears escalation following new missile launch

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer | North Korea

SEOUL -- In the wake of North Korea's latest ballistic missile launch Wednesday, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea told members of his national security council to maintain a tough line against the neighboring regime.

But he added one caveat: Prevent conditions that could lead to a pre-emptive strike by the U.S.

The successful development of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead is the red line North Korea cannot cross, according to Moon.

But North Korean state media Wednesday quoted the autocrat Kim Jong Un saying, "Today we have completed our nuclear force." If that statement is taken at face value, then Pyongyang has violated the red line.

South Korean armed forces conducted missile strike drills in the Sea of Japan within minutes of the North's predawn launch. These exercises demonstrate Seoul's commitment to exert "maximum pressure" on the hermit state, falling in line with Tokyo and Washington.

However, it is evident that South Korea is taking a somewhat softer line than its allies. While the White House seeks to beef up partnerships with Japan and South Korea, Moon maintains that extending that line to the military alliance is not desirable.

Moon has urged the U.S. to exercise restraint, emphasizing the necessity to manage the situation without overly exacerbating tensions.

The South Korean president came into office this year waving the banner of rapprochement with North Korea. Also on his mind is the coming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, a city just south of the demilitarized zone. Moon has cast those games as the "peace Olympics" since North Korea will also participate. A flare-up of tensions in the peninsula is the last thing he wants.  

Moon once again championed dialogue at Wednesday's security council gathering, though he kept the ball firmly in North Korea's court. The Kim regime needs to immediately abandon reckless behavior and come to the table, he said.

The president has lately been looking to repair ties with China, which soured over South Korea's deployment of the U.S.-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile shield. Both Seoul and Beijing agreed in late October to repair relations.

During a Nov. 11 summit in Vietnam, Moon and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed that the Korean issue must ultimately be resolved through dialogue. Moon is set to make a state visit to China in mid-December, where he and Xi are expected to reaffirm strengthened cooperation.

Meanwhile, Moon has said unilateral military action by America without Seoul's consent is "inconceivable." During Wednesday's telephone conversation with U.S. President Donald Trump, the South Korean leader called for both allies to take Pyongyang's aims into consideration, and adopt a careful response. Trump in turn sought discussions on additional measures against North Korea's missile launches.   

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