No longer ‘Groundhog Day’ in North Korea

Kim Jong Un
Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP
In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee held June 8-10, 2022, in Pyongyang. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event and the image cannot be independently verified.

Like the classic movie “Groundhog Day,” North Korea’s seemingly endless ballistic missile tests occur, a mostly inured world condemns then moves on. Passive acceptance. Rinse. Repeat. No more. With 33 missile tests already this year, preparations for a seventh nuclear test (North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un seems to love U.S. holidays, so maybe July 4) and an unusual three-day military meeting last week, Kim is opening a dangerous new  chapter of the “problem from hell” story.

Overshadowed by the Ukraine war and U.S.-China tensions, Kim has altered the military balance in ways that raise new questions about his intentions. He has developed a full array of missiles — including short, medium and long-range ICBMs, tested hypersonic missiles, as well as submarine-launched missiles and solid fuel tactical nuclear missiles. Pyongyang can hit Guam and, most likely, reach the U.S. mainland.

Particularly troubling, at a multi-day Central Military Commission (CMC) strategy session, Kim decided that frontline North Korean military units should have new duties to strengthen the nation’s nuclear deterrent. There is speculation that this may mean deploying battlefield tactical nuclear weapons. What would be Kim’s takeaway if Russian President Vladimir Putin broke the nuclear taboo and used tactical nukes in Ukraine?

Even as North Korea is fighting COVID-19, a food crises and a declining economy, Kim has relentlessly pursued missile and nuclear modernization. He has attained well more than necessary for nuclear deterrence. Additional motives include domestic legitimacy – projecting strength, the sine qua non for dictators of all stripes – and rattling the cages of the U.S., South Korea and Japan.

Kim’s robust new nuclear arsenal appears to be an effort to achieve a second-strike capability. Testing submarine-launched missiles is an important step toward such a survivable nuclear triad with its estimated 20-50 nuclear weapons, altering the military balance. Moreover, North Korea’s continued cycle of tests appear to give it a new ability to evade U.S. missile defenses with cruise and hypersonic glide vehicles difficult for U.S. radars and sensors to detect. Solid fuel missiles reduce U.S. warning time.

What does all this mean? The dream of reunification was what led Kim’s grandfather to invade the South in June 1950. Fantastic as it may sound, it continues to be a long-term goal under Kim. While Kim lacks the conventional military capability to pull off such a stunt, he may view his missiles and nukes as a means of political coercion.

So where do we go from here? To some extent, we are in uncharted waters. But there are some near certainties. Twenty-five years of failed diplomacy and a constant stream of crystal-clear statements of intention from Kim strongly suggest that as long as the Kim dynasty is in power, Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear weapons. Watching the fates of those who abandoned or lacked nuclear weapons – Iraq, Libya, now Ukraine – Kim has concluded that no assurances from the U.S. offer the security blanket his nukes provide.

Not all problems have solutions. Some, like North Korea, can only be managed. In that regard the Biden administration is doing a fair job. The administration has made deepening and broadening trilateral defense and intelligence cooperation a top priority. The administration is repairing its frayed ties to Japan and seems intent on strengthening the U.S.-South Korean relationship. The tempo of military exercise consultations has increased to meet the challenge of updated extended deterrence. This trilateral process has gotten Pyongyang’s attention: It recently accused the U.S. of  setting up an “Asian NATO.”

Unfortunately, Biden has been less successful in managing U.S.-China ties, which continue to be fraught with deepening distrust. China is the chief patron of North Korea, accounting for 90 percent of its trade. Beijing has hoped to avoid having a prickly nuclear weapons state on its border, and in the recent past, North Korea has been an area of U.S.-China cooperation. China hosted the “six party talks” (the U.S., China, Russia, South Korea, North Korea and Japan) in 2003, a process that came very close to a denuclearization deal. And after Pyongyang’s last nuclear test, China cooperated in the UN Security Council to apply unprecedented UN sanctions on North Korea.

But how much China will cooperate in the current political climate is unclear. As Kim’s preparations for a seventh nuclear test have become obvious, Biden officials have been consulting with China in the hope that Beijing’s leverage can dissuade Kim from testing.

A big question is how China will respond if there is a North Korean nuclear test. Beijing’s response will be a measure of what U.S.-China cooperation is possible. China has been urging the U.S. to lift sanctions on North Korea, and if Beijing resists cooperating on a strong response, it would be a shift, an indication that it prefers anything that pains and distracts the U.S. to disciplining North Korea, despite is interests.

Kim recently shook up his advisers, and appointed Choe Son Hui, Pyongyang’s leading America specialist, as foreign minister. Choe was Pyongyang’s negotiator during the six party talks and there is speculation that her appointment might signal an upcoming shift.

One plausible scenario is that after a nuclear test, as the U.S. and much of the world are angry and appalled, Kim shifts gears. As Biden would cast about for the proper punishment, Kim hints that he is willing to talk. But he would suggest not denuclearization but arms control talks, putting Biden in a bind, as Congress would be demanding a tough response.

There is a logic to this. Kim’s ultimate goal is to be accepted as a nuclear state, like Israel or Pakistan, and treated as a normal nation. This could rouse interest in freezing their nuclear and missile programs — for a price.

Pressure for action could tempt the Biden administration to explore such talks. They may be worth exploring, but Kim’s consistent refusal to provide a full declaration of his nuclear program (how can you freeze what you don’t know is there?) and to refuse necessary International Atomic Energy Agency verification and full monitoring would make a credible deal unlikely. That is the lesson of a long history of failed U.S. diplomacy, most recently former President Trump’s two failed summits with Kim.

Yet the temptation may arise. That is just one scenario for how the uncertain new realities on the Korean Peninsula may play out. Other scenarios may be more catastrophic.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council strategic futures group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Tags Kim Jong-un Kim Jong-un North Korea North Korea; Kim Jong Un; nuclear tests US-North Korea relations

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