Relations between the United States and North Korea and between North and South Korea have long been at an impasse, with the mood of dialogue that existed in 2018-2019 now entirely a thing of the past. Gone are the days when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un himself talked about “denuclearization”, even superficially. Today, North Korea and South Korea are engaged in an arms race.
The conservative government of President Yoon Suk-yeol was inaugurated in South Korea in May 2022. Since the beginning of the year, North Korea has increased the frequency of its missile tests, and the development of nuclear missiles is clearly now his default path. This is based on a mid-term strategy which is a “five-year plan to develop a national defense science and armament system”, which was adopted at the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in January 2021.
Yoon maintains a hardline stance on North Korea and stresses the importance of the US-Korea alliance. A former attorney general with no parliamentary experience, Yoon’s diplomatic and security advisers are closely linked to the former Lee Myung-bak administration. It therefore follows that Seoul’s policy towards North Korea is little different from that of the Lee administration. The “bold plan” presented by Yoon in August was to provide step-by-step assistance, such as food and medical infrastructure, depending on the status of North Korea’s denuclearization. It was simply an “arrogant” policy reminiscent of the failures of the Lee administration. The fact remains that the development of inter-Korean relations is difficult in the absence of progress between the United States and North Korea, as evidenced by the failures of inter-Korean dialogue under the Moon Jae-in administration.
Former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak came to power in 2008 advocating “Vision 3000: Denuclearization and Openness”, which aimed to help North Korea reach US$3,000 per capita income by 10 years if it opened up and embraced denuclearization. Hopes for this policy ended in 2010 when North Korea sank the ROKS Cheonan and bombed Yeonpyeong, two acts that cost the South Koreans their lives. Both of these provocations took place when Kim Jong-il was the leader, but there have been persistent suggestions that Kim Jong-un, who had just been named successor, was the one who had in fact ordered them.
Lee’s failure to organize an inter-Korean summit should not be repeated. Yet, for now, the possibility of North Korea trying to strike South Korea directly again cannot be ruled out. After all, the means of retaliation available to the United States and South Korea against North Korea, a de facto nuclear power, are limited.
North Korea is focused on developing short-range missiles, including hypersonic missiles that are difficult to intercept because signs of their imminent launch are hard to detect. There is no doubt that if and when negotiations with the United States resume, the first thing Washington will demand dismantling will be any ICBMs that can reach the American continent. Whether this happens after the Biden administration, as Pyongyang assumes, the North Koreans determined they needed to focus on preparing for real combat by investing in the development of missiles that could reach US forces in South Korea. South, in Japan and Guam.
Speaking at the military parade held in Pyongyang earlier this year to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army, Kim Jong-un personally reversed his previous claim that nuclear weapons are a “deterrent “, claiming that they have a “second mission”, alluding to the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
Earlier, in October last year, Kim said “our main enemy is war itself, not any particular state or power, like South Korea or the United States.” Denying these words, North Korea has adopted a hostile attitude towards the United States and even South Korea since the beginning of the year. Kim said South Korea’s deepening security cooperation with the United States and Japan was a “provocation”. These intransigent remarks were widely relayed in North Korea by the Rodong Sinmoun and Korean Central Television, as a signal to the North Korean people not to expect any diplomatic progress in the near future.
The invasion of non-nuclear-armed Ukraine by nuclear-armed Russia would likely have offered an additional incentive for Pyongyang to build up its national defense capabilities, and unless the United States decide to make major concessions to North Korea, Kim will continue with his current nuclear weapons policy. In South Korea, Yoon’s popularity rating has not only languished on inflation and poor personnel management, his government is struggling to do anything since he will be a minority ruling party until in the April 2024 general election. Seoul cannot back down from its hard-line stance against North Korea, which includes responding when missiles are launched, as it must shore up support from domestic conservatives. Ultimately, however, this approach will only encourage further North Korean provocations.
ISOZAKI Atsuhito is a professor at Keio University.