Four years after Singapore summit, Kim Jong Un still threatens — with words and missiles
The presidency of Donald Trump reached possibly its brightest moment on June 12, 2018, when he and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un sat down in Singapore for the first-ever summit between an American and a North Korean leader. Hopes were high enough for Trump later to claim that he and Kim “fell in love,” for a while, at least, from their first embrace for all the world to see live on TV and the internet.
Since then, Kim has made clear that he’s not going to live up to any commitment, real or implicit — notably the pledge that he and Trump signed “to work toward complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula. Not even the pandemic, for which North Korea was totally unprepared, is going to bring Kim to his senses. He continues to press full speed ahead developing missiles and nukes for defense, he always insists, against his enemies, notably the U.S.
From the Korean peninsula to Southeast Asia, the battle lines are deepening. Most recently, Kim has expressed unreserved support for everything Russian President Vladimir Putin is ordering his forces to do in Ukraine. That makes sense. The Russians are setting a perfect example for North Korea. Kim would love to follow Putin’s example and order his own forces to invade South Korea, as his grandfather Kim Il Sung did 72 years ago on June 25, 1950. He can’t do it, of course, without China’s approval and support, which Chinese President Xi Jinping apparently is not ready to give, but Kim would like nothing better than to intimidate South Korea and its American ally into negotiations and an agreement that would sap the strength of their forces and undermine the alliance.
Kim faces frustration, however, in the tightening bond between the U.S. and its two northeast Asian allies, South Korea and Japan. Historical animosity dating from Japanese colonial rule over the Korean peninsula precludes a trilateral alliance among the U.S., South Korea and Japan, but trilateral cooperation is now the watchword. Ever since President Biden’s summits last month in Seoul with President Yoon Suk-yeol and Tokyo with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, U.S. diplomats have pressed for all three countries to work together against North Korean threats in the form of missile tests and possibly another nuclear test.
Such cooperation presents an immediate challenge to China. Obviously, China has to view trilateral cooperation among the U.S., South Korea and Japan as anti-Chinese, just as China sees other relationships as directed against Chinese expansionism. The most severe challenge to China’s dream of hegemony over much of Asia would be military exercises that U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin discussed with Lee Jong-sup, South Korea’s defense minister, and Japan’s defense minister, Nobuo Kishi, at the recent “Shangri-la dialogue” in Singapore of defense chiefs and other officials from 40 countries.
The alignment of these countries is all the more challenging to China considering the strong support both the U.S. and Japan are offering Taiwan. Austin, at the Shangri-la confab (named for the hyper-luxury hotel where they met), accused China of “provocative and destabilizing military activity near Taiwan,” the island province that Biden has reaffirmed the U.S. is committed to defend while acknowledging that Taiwan is still part of “one China.”
In its latest act of intimidation, Austin noted, China has been sending fighter planes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe vowed that China would “resolutely smash any schemes for Taiwan independence if anyone dares to split off Taiwan” and said China “will not flinch from the cost and will fight to the very end.”
China also must worry about two other agreements engineered by Washington. One is the Quad, uniting the U.S., Japan, Australia and India in common cause, and the other is AUKUS, the Australia, United Kingdom and U.S. agreement to share the means of advanced warfare along with provision of nuclear submarines to Australia. Those deals, carrying the implicit threat of ganging up against China, are clearly what Wei had in mind when he accused the U.S. of attempting to “impose its will” and “bully others” in order to “hijack countries in our region.”
For the U.S., what’s needed beyond counter-rhetoric against rhetoric from North Korea and China, or missile tests matching North Korean tests, is extended deterrence. Voices in Washington already wonder if the Americans will tire of supporting Ukraine with billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry, including advanced missiles needed to stop Putin from waging a war in which Ukrainians are left to fight on their own.
Kim may cheer on the Russians, applauding them for refusing to back down as the Ukrainians learn to use all the weapons that America and its NATO allies are sending them, but he is not yet ready for a second Korean War. He’s counting on his enemies finally to weary of standing firm against him, to begin arguing among themselves and eventually to look for appeasement, as did the former Korean president, Moon Jae-in.
The ultimate test of all the talk among U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials of adopting a hard line, engaging in joint exercises, and test-firing missiles in response to North Korea’s will be the commitment of present and future leaders to carry on — for as long as it takes — to get Kim to back down. That means denuclearization must remain a top priority. There can be no compromises, no willingness to accept North Korea as a de facto nuclear state just because it has conducted nuclear tests.
While Kim refuses to come to terms, to give way on the nuclear issue, North Korea will remain a threat to the security of the Korean peninsula and the region. Now that U.S., South Korean and Japanese leaders agree to cooperate against a menace to all their people, they and their successors will need to follow through, proving that their strong words are more than bluff and bluster.
Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.