Washington and Seoul should intensify joint exercises to call Kim Jong Un’s bluff

Associated Press/Ahn Young-joon
South Korean and U.S. missiles are displayed at Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea, on Jan. 18, 2022. Grappling with pandemic difficulties and U.S.-led sanctions over his nuclear ambitions, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could be reviving his 2017 playbook of nuclear and missile brinkmanship to wrest concessions from Washington and his neighbors.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un loves to keep everyone guessing. It’s not just about when or whether he will order the North’s seventh underground nuclear test. Now the guessing game focuses on whether he’s deploying tactical nukes just above the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that has divided North from South Korea ever since the Korean War.

Two of the primary targets presumably would be Camp Humphreys, headquarters of U.S. Forces Korea and the UN Command, and Osan Air Base, home of the Seventh U.S. Air Force. They’re 11 miles apart, each about 40 miles south of Seoul and 60 miles below the DMZ — within easy range of North Korean missiles.

For all the speculation about what Kim is doing about his nukes, it’s hard to believe he’d actually fire a missile, with or without a warhead. That would trigger Korean War II. He may, however, want to explode a small warhead in the North’s next underground nuclear test, rather than a hydrogen bomb like the one that blew up half a mountain in the North’s most recent such test in September 2017. A display of the North’s success in detonating small nukes that might fit onto missiles would be a great way to show the world what Kim might do, if annoyed. How better to frighten South Koreans and the Americans — and impress his people while untold millions of North Koreans are suffering from COVID-19?

The reason for all the speculation about tactical nukes is a three-day meeting of the military commission of the ruling Workers’ Party that wound up with a blaze of scary rhetoric. The commission “decided to supplement the operation duties of KPA [Korean People’s Army] frontline units with an important military action plan,” said the English version of a report from Pyongyang. The commission also reportedly approved “a military guarantee for further strengthening the country’s war deterrent.”

How’s that again? Did Kim have tactical nukes specifically in mind? The statement may be mere bluff and bluster, intended for sensational impact. There’s no sign the KPA has changed its order of battle or enhanced its inventory of weapons. Seventy percent of the North’s 1.2 million troops long have hovered below a line between Pyongyang and the east coast port of Wonsan, more than 100 kilometers above the DMZ, and about 200,000 of them are within 20 miles of the DMZ. For most of them, the compelling need is getting enough to eat. They’re probably better fed than most of the North’s 26 million people, but rations are short. The average North Korean soldier is four inches shorter than the average South Korean.

Much as Kim may hate South Korean and U.S. forces staging large-scale joint military exercises for the first time since his summits in 2018 with Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in, the leftist who served as South Korea’s president for five years, Kim has no real reason to add to what he already has up close to the DMZ. For decades, the North Koreans have been dug in there, bristling with thousands of artillery pieces capable of pummeling Seoul and the port city of Incheon, all largely invisible from the South Korean side. What difference would a few short-range missiles make?

Don’t think, however, that Kim doesn’t dream of ways to keep his enemies on edge — and impress his own people. Confident that his two best friends, China and Russia, won’t do a thing even if he conducts another nuclear test, he’s sure to want to build upon fear that he has targets in South Korea in his sights. Daniel Russel, former assistant secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, at a forum in Seoul staged by Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, advised attendees to expect “fire and fury” from the North in keeping with bold pronouncements from the military commission of the ruling party, which Kim oversees as general secretary.

The rhetoric also was intended to distract from the COVID pandemic that North Korea did not acknowledge until last month. We may assume that the statistics for those who have succumbed to what the North routinely calls “fever” are nonsense. The North has reported fewer than 100 deaths and does not have the facilities to diagnose or treat the virus on a mass scale. Undoubtedly, tens of thousands of North Koreans have contracted COVID and died. Cleverly, North Korea has sought to turn the scourge into a chance to propagandize Kim’s success in conquering the disease; we may assume these claims are false.

The call to strengthen the North’s “war deterrent” is a great way to shift the focus from the pandemic to military priorities. The military commission’s gathering was a chance to respond to the hard line of conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has pledged to stand up to North Korea’s threats and approved joint military exercises with the Americans. Kim is counting on his bombast to give the jitters to policymakers in Washington and Seoul, some of whom remain convinced of the need to compromise, to avoid war games that are sure to challenge the North, and to beg for dialogue that has no more chance of working than all previous attempts at getting Kim to give up his nukes.

The U.S. and South Korea should not fall for this subterfuge. American and Korean commanders should call Kim’s bluff by intensifying exercises. War games involving all branches of the armed forces, from soldiers on the ground to fighter planes and ships offshore, would demonstrate clearly that Kim is faking. He can do nothing about them while wasting vast amounts of time and resources on nukes and missiles that serve no purpose other than to buttress his rhetoric.

Kim is aware of the punishment that awaits his regime if he were to fire a missile or explode a warhead for any purpose other than testing. We should recognize the latest meetings of his party’s military commission for what they were — sound and fury signifying nothing other than another stab at shocking his foes into compromise and concessions. The proper response should be to expose his bold words as hollow nonsense.

Kim Jong Un needs to focus on the suffering of his impoverished, disease-ridden people and forget about strengthening his armed forces, other than feeding them enough to give them the individual strength to survive.

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 Denuclearization of Korean Peninsula Kim Jong Un North Korea nuclear weapons North Korean nuclear test US-South Korea military exercises

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