North Korea sharply set back prospects for peace when it broke a 2018 moratorium on intercontinental ballistic missile testing last month by launching one of its largest weapons ever, one it claims is capable of striking the entire North American continent.
The United States and South Korea have cast doubt over whether Pyongyang had actually tested a new missile, but more launches are expected in the near future, as well as a potential nuclear test. And Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un may use the 110th anniversary of regime founder Kim Il-sung’s birth – on April 15 – to show off yet more weapons.
Speaking after last month’s launch, Mr. Kim said only “overwhelming military power” can “prevent war and guarantee the security of our country.” Such language is a marked return to North Korea’s aggressive posture prior to 2018, when a peace process led by South Korean President Moon Jae-in made major breakthroughs and appeared poised to secure an agreement finally ending the Korean War.
“I think the coming several months will be a very precarious period,” said Moon Chung-in, a former special adviser to the South Korean government.
This is not only because of developments in Pyongyang. Last month, South Korean voters narrowly selected conservative Yoon Suk-yeol to succeed Mr. Moon, who was constitutionally limited to a single term in office. Mr. Yoon has called his predecessor’s policy toward Pyongyang a “complete failure” and advocated for harsh sanctions and even pre-emptive strikes against the nuclear-armed North.
Pyongyang has called threats of a pre-emptive strike “a fantastic daydream” and the “hysteria of a lunatic,” warning that such a move would be met by a “dreadful attack.”
Chad O’Carroll, chief executive of the Seoul-based Korea Risk Group, predicted Mr. Yoon may also restart propaganda broadcasts across the DMZ and allow dissidents to send material by balloon into North Korea, actions that have debatable strategic value but are known to infuriate Pyongyang.
“Yoon will seek to portray a strongman image and be less accommodating of North Korean nuclear and missile tests,” Mr. O’Carroll said. “But we all know that nothing he does is going to actually to lead to any strategic goals being reached. It’s just going to be a different management style for the same problem.”
Since the collapse of the 2018-2019 talks, Mr. O’Carroll said, “the ship has really sailed on denuclearization and any chance to build inter-Korean engagement, co-operation and dialogue.”
That’s because for all Mr. Yoon’s criticism of his predecessor’s policies, he and his advisers do not have any new ideas: They mostly advocate returning to a strategy that equally failed to halt North Korea’s nuclear development.
James Trottier, a former Canadian diplomat who led delegations to North Korea, said the situation reminded him of 2008, when incoming conservative leader Lee Myung-bak abandoned the “Sunshine Policy” of previous administrations and took a harder line on North Korea, one that was maintained by his successor, Park Geun-hye.
“What followed was essentially 10 lost years, during which North Korea reached unprecedented levels of nuclear and missile capability, and we saw rising tensions and confrontation between North Korea on one side and the U.S. and South Korea on the other,” he said.
“Right now, we are entering another such provocation cycle.”
Former government adviser Dr. Moon, who took part in the peace negotiations with Pyongyang, bemoaned the lost opportunity to follow through on the opening of 2018-2019. Talks between the U.S. and North Korea collapsed after Washington pushed for an all-or-nothing deal, rather than accept limited concessions from Pyongyang in return for partial sanctions relief.
“I think North Korea felt betrayed,” Dr. Moon said. “It will be very difficult for them to come back to the negotiation table.”
While Washington is officially supportive of continued talks, U.S. President Joe Biden has not focused on North Korea since succeeding Donald Trump, and the Ukraine crisis has only driven the issue further down his list of priorities. The U.S. has yet to confirm a new ambassador to South Korea, and the current envoy responsible for dealing with Pyongyang splits that duty with being ambassador to Indonesia.
“They see North Korea more as a problem to manage rather than solve,” said Mr. Trottier. “The Biden administration basically rebuffed President Moon’s attempts to encourage engagement between the U.S. and North Korea. Without any further initiatives from South Korea, what we’re likely to see is the continuation of this kind of strategic drift from the U.S., interspersed with knee-jerk reactions to North Korean provocations.”
All the while, Pyongyang will likely further build up its missile and nuclear arsenals, just as it has in the past when facing sanctions and sabre-rattling supposedly designed to prevent just that.
From 2007-2017, North Korea conducted five nuclear tests, with the most recent device having an estimated yield equivalent to more than 100 kilotons of TNT, and perhaps as high as 250 kilotons. By comparison, the largest-ever nuclear weapon used in war, the device dropped by the U.S. on Nagasaki, had a yield of 20 kilotons.
Under Kim Jong-un, North Korea has also conducted more than 130 missile tests, extending its strike ability well beyond regional rivals South Korea and Japan to much of the world, through ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Both missile and nuclear testing were paused after Mr. Kim met with Mr. Moon. Christine Ahn, founder of Women Cross DMZ, which advocates for peace on the peninsula, said it was wrong to see the 2018-2019 talks as a failure, even if their gains are now at risk of being squandered.
“Look at what was accomplished in that brief period of inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea summits in 2018: demined portions of the DMZ, the reunion of separated families and the creation of a joint liaison office in Kaesong,” she said.
“North Korea dismantled … a rocket launch site, and Punggye-ri, a nuclear test site. It also released three detained Americans, repatriated 55 boxes of U.S. servicemen remains and self-imposed a moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests.”
The talks failed, she said, because of Washington’s insistence on denuclearization as a first step, rather than an ultimate goal.
North Korea has always made clear that it will never give up its nuclear weapons while it perceives there is a threat of U.S. invasion or regime change. According to the U.S. intelligence community’s own annual threat assessment, North Korean leaders view nuclear weapons as “the ultimate deterrent against foreign intervention.”
This sentiment will only have been reinforced by the Ukraine crisis, analysts said, particularly given the country once possessed nuclear weapons, but gave them up after the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Such parallels have not stopped North Korea from standing by Russia, shoring up an ally on the United Nations Security Council who can, along with China, block any future international sanctions.)
“They see yet again for them the consequences of giving up nuclear weapons, which they will never do,” Mr. Trottier said. “Regime survival is the [No. 1] priority for the regime, and nuclear weapons are seen as vital to that.”
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