Korea has experienced increased tensions after the North and the South both conducted missile tests in recent days. Tests are a stark reminder of how volatile the security situation in the region has become after a series of steadily escalated provocations from the North.
Beginning with North Korea’s busy schedule due to recently restarted nuclear facilities, a new cruise missile test, and launches of ballistic missiles that landed in the Sea of Japan, North Korea has been active in the announcement of nuclear weapons.
As part of the long history of Hermit Kingdom nuclear drama, this latest spate of provocations is aimed at just one target: Joe Biden.
All this begs a simple question: Why?
North Korea’s nuclear power plant, Yongbyon, was reported to have displayed suspicious activity in late August by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). As a symbol of Kim Jong Un’s commitment to settling his nuclear case with the United States, Yongbyon had been temporarily closed in 2018 as a means of showcasing the dictator’s close relationship with then-President Trump.
Despite its reduced importance, Yongbyon remains North Korea’s sole source of plutonium and tritium, both of which are essential for building North Korea’s advanced thermonuclear weapons, which has earned it added dread throughout the region. In the days immediately following, North Korea’s state media reported that a new cruise missile had been successfully tested.
State media said the missile was a strategic weapon, Pyongyang slang for a weapon that could carry nuclear weapons. In adding these weapons to its growing arsenal, the belligerent state complicates the United States, Japan, and South Korea’s defense and strategic calculations. There was a rapid follow-up action by a nuclear launch that reached the Sea of Japan and alerted regional capitals. Analysts and government officials have taken notice of this launch, which was conducted using a railway-based missile launcher.
Developing a variety of missile launch and delivery systems will help the North Koreans make their arsenal more survivable. Military detection and intelligence assets from both countries will be required to map the North Korean rail infrastructure so that they can locate and strike them in the event of an emergency. This new development, in light of the many military assets that Seoul and Washington already track, puts greater pressure on the two allies’ ability to detect and react to provocations from their troublesome northern enemy.
Pyongyang’s military modernization plans have been clear since the failure of the charm offensive with President Trump in 2018-19. First, Kim Jong-Un lifted the ban on missile tests in 2019. During a night-time military parade in October 2020, the rogue state displayed ICBMs that were more powerful than previously expected.
Moreover, North Korea demonstrated its version of a submarine launch ballistic missile, which was also recently acquired by Seoul with great fanfare by international media. Kim’s chairman has made clear his country will continue on its path of arms production and modernization, which is rather concerning. Early this year, Pyongyang’s leadership revealed plans to acquire tactical nuclear weapons, naval nuclear propulsion systems, and enhanced satellite capabilities.
North Korea’s carefully calibrated provocations signal one more time that Kim Jong Un is open to talks with the US. The playbook of the North Korean regime has long been to create a crisis, forcing opposing parties into negotiations, extract concessions, and repeat. As Kim resumes Yongbyon and flexes his country’s nuclear muscle, he hopes to exert sufficient pressure on President Biden to rekindle US-North Korea talks that broke down in Stockholm in 2019.
According to longtime observers, Chairman Kim aims to alleviate some of the economic pressures his country is facing since the United Nations imposed crippling sanctions upon his country following its missile tests in 2016 and 2017. The economy of this isolated nation has been heavily reliant on Chinese largesse for a long time now.
Chairman Kim closed his nation’s borders in response to COVID-19, causing sharp contractions in trade with China and the worst economic contraction in over a decade for North Korea. The Chairman is hoping that by talking to Biden, he can barter a portion of his nuclear arsenal for sanctions relief, a desperate attempt to keep the country running smoothly.
As a result, Biden is stuck in a bind. North Korea will be encouraged to continue tests and development of more advanced weapons as long as Biden ignores North Korea’s signals for talks. Since North Korea is already able to strike the continental United States, this would be incompatible with the American position. Pyongyang used this missile to demonstrate its ability to deliver a calamitous payload to the American homeland during its October 2020 parade.
Biden, however, has been unable to meet with Pyongyang’s Special Representative for North Korean Affairs despite his willingness to engage with the regime. Kim Jong Un and his top advisers are said to be so delighted with being feted at the highest levels by ex-President Trump that they will not settle for anything less than a direct meeting with Biden. Since Biden has previously indicated his unwillingness to switch from Trump’s structured approach to a more traditional diplomatic approach, a rift between both sides already exists.
However, if these protocol issues are resolved, there are even more challenging issues that remain. North Korea’s hard-won nuclear weapons have become increasingly evident as North Korea has vehemently refused to let go of them despite US demands. By maintaining a nuclear arsenal, North Korea not only deters potential military action from the United States but is also able to deal equally with the world’s most powerful nation.
Biden is however capable of using creative statecraft. While the US calls for denuclearization in principle, the Biden team may propose a phased agreement. Such an agreement would lay out clear timelines for actions such as dismantling Yongbyon and a moratorium on new weapons development and testing. Upon verifying compliance, the US and its allied partners, such as South Korea, might lift sanctions and allow Pyongyang to reap economic benefits.
Indeed, such a deal wouldn’t be perfect by any means. Pyongyang has had a hard time allowing thorough inspections previously. As a result, it would most certainly make Biden’s conservative opponents at home very uncomfortable. Biden, however, can succeed where Trump failed by accepting Pyongyang’s nuclear status: The U.S. cannot get rid of Pyongyang‘s nuclear weapons; however, it can restrict its capabilities in a way that reduces the threat to allied countries. It is hoped that the Biden team lives up to the challenge, given what is at stake for world security.