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What if Kim Jong Un isn’t bluffing? Seoul and Washington should shore up defenses

AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin
People gather for celebrations marking North Korea’s 74th anniversary in Pyongyang on Sept. 8, 2022.

North Korea is a nuclear state, and leader Kim Jong Un could fire or drop his nuclear warheads any time. Kim made that message indelibly clear in a speech at the Supreme People’s Assembly, which then passed a law saying the North could fire off a nuke automatically in response to any threat, real or imagined.

These remarks should snuff the hopes of the most optimistic officials and analysts who persist in thinking they can somehow negotiate with Kim to give up his nukes. That dream, enticing though it always has been in the quest for negotiations with North Korea, should be laid aside as fantasy. Forget about denuclearization, was the message — more harshly stated than in any of Kim’s previous diatribes against Washington and Seoul.

Now it’s up to the Republic of Korea and the U.S. to stand firm against Kim’s threats, to denounce them for what they are, an attempt at intimidation that won’t stop the U.S. and ROK from cooperating on military exercises and strengthening their defenses against the North. There is no need to be polite in the face of Kim’s nonsense. Expressions of “regret” are useless.

Nor is there any point in reminding Kim of the “audacious initiative” proposed by President Yoon Suk-yeol for providing the North with vast amounts of aid in return for basic steps toward denuclearization. Rather than repeating that proposal, Yoon might be well advised to withdraw it. Why not state simply: “You had your chance, and now we’re no longer offering it.”

Kim was right when he said the Americans want to get the North to “put down” and “eliminate our nuclear weapons,” but he was wrong in saying they want “ultimately to bring down our regime.”

Destruction of the Kim regime could bring about chaos with unpredictable results, including possibly the rise of a new leader who might go beyond rhetoric and actually fire missiles with nuclear warheads at the South. Rather than attempting to “weaken the power to exercise self-defense,” as Kim said the U.S. was doing, the U.S. and ROK need to do much more to make sure they’re capable of quickly turning back North Korean aggression.

With that view in mind, Washington and Seoul should firmly denounce the law adopted by the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly, authorizing an “automatic nuclear strike” on the origin of any attack of the North. The same law legalized Kim’s “monolithic command” with “decisive powers” over nuclear weapons — another way of saying he’s ready to open a nuclear war.

Kim has always had total power, but he evidently felt the need to reinforce it while Yoon tightens the South’s alliance with Washington. American and South Korean forces have completed their first field exercises in five years, and Yoon and his ministers have been mingling tough talk with offers of negotiation that North Korea has loudly rejected.

At a gathering of military officers and officials from dozens of countries, Shin Beom-chul, South Korea’s vice defense minister, said it would “be no surprise” if North Korea were to conduct its seventh nuclear test — its first since September 2017.

“The present threat is not only to Korea but the entire world,” Shin said at the annual Seoul Defense Dialogue that I attended at the Lotte Hotel. “There should be serious consequences,” he said. “We need to deter North Korean attempts.” In fact, “If necessary, we may have a counter-attack against North Korea.”

That’s not going to happen, at least to judge from the remarks of Allison Hooker, a key aide on North Korea in the Trump administration, now with American Global Strategies. “Our wish to galvanize international cooperation is very difficult,” she said. “The international community’s ability to muster a strong response is unclear.” Oddly, she said, “It’s not even clear whether a seventh nuclear test will be sufficiently shocking.”

Let us hope that the big talk on responding to North Korea is not all empty posturing. The Americans and South Koreans should be ready to move swiftly, decisively, against any real signs of North Korean moves against the South. Kim’s remarks, together with the new North Koren law authorizing a strike against the South any time, shows the mounting danger.

Kim Jong Un’s remarks were calibrated to answer the comments of South Korean leaders, including President Yoon. He gave his talk on the 74th anniversary of the formal founding of North Korea as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948 under his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. Less than two years later, Kim Il Sung ordered the invasion of the South, resulting in a war that cost 4 million lives.

By increasing the nuclear threat, said a South Korean foreign ministry spokesman, North Korea would “further strengthen the Seoul-Washington alliance” while “further isolating itself from the international community and worsening economic difficulties facing the North Korean people.”

That warning was not likely to have the slightest impact. By imposing the “biggest-ever sanctions and blockade,” Kim said, Washington is guilty of “misjudgment and miscalculation of adversaries.”

Seoul and Washington together need to demonstrate that it’s Kim who’s guilty of miscalculation. Together they should continue to build up their defenses. By authorizing the use of nuclear weapons any time, Kim may be considering Korean War II — a second North Korean invasion, utilizing nukes and missiles to make it far more devastating and deadly than Korean War I.

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.

Tags Kim Jong Un Kim Jong Un North Korea north korea denuclearization South Korea Yoon Suk-yeol

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