Seoul and Washington must not blink in the face of Pyongyang’s nuclear blackmail

Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP
In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches a military parade to mark the 90th anniversary of North Korea’s army at the Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on April 25, 2022. South Korea’s military said on June 5 that North Korea has test-fired at least one unidentified ballistic missile toward the sea, extending a provocative streak in weapons demonstrations this year that U.S. and South Korean officials believe may culminate with a nuclear test explosion.

Julius Caesar he is not. But Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, in 2018 set in motion a chain of events that eerily reflects Caesar’s dictum made over 2,000 years ago: “In war, events of importance are the result of trivial causes.”  

Back then, no one — perhaps save for Kim himself, the patrilineal grandson of the “ever-victorious, iron-willed” state founder Kim Il Sung — could have foreseen that one day Kim would win a “brilliant victory” over COVID-19. Still, by mid-May of this year, Pyongyang’s vigilant seers may have foretold ultimate victory when Kim, calling the spread of the coronavirus a historical “great upheaval” to befall his nation, declared war on the pandemic.  

The North’s state media reported last week that Kim had “solemnly declared the victory” at a party gathering on Aug. 10. This unverifiable victory, the state news agency stressed, was “priceless,” “great” and “shining.” How could it be anything less? After all, the third-generational Great Leader had walked, talked and balked at offers of medical aid from abroad, and yet, had easily, Caesar-style, conquered his nation’s invisible enemy. 

Even an easier victory Kim already had won four years ago in discussions with former President Trump. Kim’s victory was aided by pre-game assistance from former South Korean President Moon Jae-In, which, rather than diminishing Kim’s achievement, only underscores Moon’s trivial concerns. Riding high with an 80 percent approval rating coming out of his first tragi-comical faux peace summit with Kim at the inter-Korea border village, Moon turned next to further beautifying Kim’s brutish image. In the weeks leading up to the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore, Moon repeatedly told Trump that Kim was amenable to “denuclearization” and, thereby, was a reasonable fellow who can be trusted. Just whom Kim was willing to denuclearize — himself or his adversaries — was a matter on which Moon equivocated.  

Kim manipulated Trump in more ways than one. In addition to selling Trump the same “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” practiced by his predecessors in 1991, 1994, 2005 and 2007 — Kim persuaded Trump to suspend indefinitely America’s decades-old, defensive live military exercises with South Korea. After the summit, Trump, using North Korean verbiage, said the “war games” were “very provocative,” “tremendously expensive,” and unnecessarily damaging to North Korea’s security and America’s economy. The Pentagon indefinitely suspended select exercises. 

Moon’s determination to please Kim and his sister, Kim Yo Jong, by undermining South Korea’s combat readiness was no small victory for Kim Jong Un. That the Trump administration also came on board made Kim’s win even more gratifying. 

Just as the notion of “snapping back” financial sanctions after a period of lax enforcement is a myth, so is the thought of snap-back military drills after an extended hiatus. Both require manpower, resources and coordinated execution. Even in Iceland, the perennial leader in the Global Peace Index, a police station that settles for year-round computer simulation exercises without live training exercises may be accused of dereliction of duty. But for South Korea, which faces across the border a model state purveyor of international terrorism-cum-crimes against humanity that threatens it, to eschew field training and endanger itself and U.S. troops in Korea may be gross negligence.  

With the resumption of the combined U.S.-Republic of Korea field exercises set to begin Aug. 22, Kim will escalate and deflect blame on Seoul. After all, timely troublemaking is his métier. The more threats he dispenses, the more likely he is to be regarded and ultimately accepted as the firm steward of a legitimate, growing nuclear arsenal. Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine means that little, if any, penalty beyond verbal rebuke will come Kim’s way. 

During the victory-over-COVID political event with her brother last week, Kim Yo Jong averred that the coronavirus was intentionally transmitted into the North by South Korean “human trash” and “scumbags,” that is, human rights activists. She claimed that coronavirus-contaminated “leaflets, cash, and dirty booklets” the activists put inside balloons and launched into the North were the first source of the “malicious virus” in her nation and threatened “deadly vengeful response” against the South, including “extermination” of the South Korean government.  

South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, must brace for a period of accentuated inter-Korean tension. His administration must stay firm in the face of Pyongyang’s escalation and possible limited attacks on the South. And it must not go wobbly at the first fake olive branch Kim dangles. During his Aug. 15 Liberation Day speech, Yoon said if the North were to cease its nuclear program and turn to a “genuine and substantive process for denuclearization,” the South would revamp its infrastructure — from building power plants, ports and airports to facilitating international financial investment in the nation of misery and thievery by day and darkness and hunger by night.  

Not only would such joint ventures with the North require the approval of the United Nations Security Council 1718 Committee, Kim would only manipulate the tantalizing prospect for such financial aid to buy more time and money with which to further advance his nuclear capabilities. 

Still, the U.S.-ROK alliance today is poised to revive itself from the state of disrepair into which it plunged during the past five years. At a summit in Seoul in May, Presidents Biden and Yoon, using strong language, reaffirmed the alliance. In particular, Biden affirmed “the U.S. extended deterrence commitment to the ROK using the full range of U.S. defense capabilities, including nuclear, conventional and missile defense capabilities.” The two leaders pledged to grow the entente into a “global comprehensive strategic alliance” beyond keeping the peace in the Korean peninsula, and to closely cooperate on economic and critical technology interests. 

Once North Korea escalates, the U.S. and South Korea must send, beyond strong words, an unequivocal message to Kim Jong Un that his game could result in massive counterattacks on all his estates throughout his country. Firm, credible threats — otherwise known as deterrence — have kept the de facto peace in Korea for 79 years. Seoul and Washington must not blink now that Pyongyang has begun threatening a preemptive nuclear strike. The stakes are higher than ever before. Not only “peace with justice and honor” but the very preservation of human lives in the Korean peninsula depends on it. 

As Shakespeare’s Hamlet intoned, “The readiness is all.” The essential task of keeping the peace stands not on the triviality of opinion poll numbers or inter-Korean projects but the paramount importance of prescience and planning. 

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and faculty associate at the U.S.-Japan Program, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.

Tags COVID-19 pandemic Kim Il Sung Kim Jong Un Kim Yo Jong Korean Peninsula North Korea nuclear weapons North Korea–South Korea relations

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