Responding to North Korea’s Nuclear Ambition
Member Activities

Responding to North Korea’s Nuclear Ambition


APLN member Eunjung Lim writes on the importance of US-Japan-ROK cooperation and points out that the purpose of trilateral military cooperation is to prepare for every possible contingency, not to disrupt peace in East Asia by aggravating China. At present, it is crucial to prioritize efforts in bringing North Korea back to the forefront of denuclearization negotiations, while solidifying South Korea-US-Japan cooperation so that extended deterrence can certainly work. The original post can be found here.

This article is a product of a Perry World House workshop on “The Future of Nuclear Weapons, Statecraft, and Deterrence after Ukraine”, which took place on April 4, 2023. 

As strategic competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China continues to intensify, geopolitical tripolarity has reemerged following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Oil producers in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia, are moving in the direction of maximizing their national interests, and in the midst of this, Saudi Arabia and Iran have reconciled with China’s mediation. As the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran undergoes major shifts, we may need to change the framework of our analysis of the Middle East and energy-related geopolitics.

This complex geopolitical situation is very challenging for a country like South Korea, because it achieved economic development based on manufacturing and exports without indigenous natural resources, all while confronting nuclear-armed North Korea. The United States and China are engaged in a fateful confrontation over technological hegemony in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution; global supply chains have been greatly disturbed during the pandemic; and the price of imported energy and food has risen due to the war in Ukraine. All these factors have worsened South Korea’s trade balance. From South Korea’s point of view, when the United States, China, and even Russia are on good terms and globalization is not hindered, it can enjoy economic gains and approach the North Korean issue more creatively. Although there are many aspects of the current international situation that hinder South Korea’s diplomatic leeway, this article will address policy proposals on how to address the North Korea nuclear issue.

North Korea’s nuclear development has long been a security threat not only to South Korea, but also to Japan, the United States, and East Asia. Over the decades, these countries have attempted to solve this problem together, with initiatives including the 1994 Agreed Framework; the long-running Sunshine Policy; the Six-Party Talks; several inter-Korean summits; and two bilateral meetings between former US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. Despite all these efforts, this problem still has not been resolved.

Now, the current South Korean government’s policy vis-à-vis North Korea is called “3D”: Deterrence, Dissuasion, and Dialogue. It means that South Korea will aim to develop the ability to deter North Korea’s threat; make North Korea give up its nuclear program; and move forward to dialogue. The government of President Yoon Seok-Yeol has decided to strengthen military cooperation with Japan, based on robust alliance cooperation with the United States. In March 2023, President Yoon became the first Korean president in twelve years to visit Japan to hold bilateral talks with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. In April, the 2+2 diplomatic and security dialogue resumed after five years.

However, some in South Korea have criticized the current government’s approach. According to critics, the first two Ds (Deterrence and Dissuasion) will lead to an arms race, and as the triangular military cooperation between South Korea, the US, and Japan becomes more solid, it will only push North Korea toward China and Russia. South Korea, like the United States, is a presidential system, so political polarization on any issue often occurs, and it is very difficult to unite public opinion, especially in relation to North Korea and unification.

While South Korea is internally divided, North Korea is developing nuclear weapons and missile capabilities. According to the Korea Institute for National Unification, since 1984, North Korea has conducted 183 missile and nuclear tests. 147 of these launches – about 80 percent – have taken place under Kim Jong-Un’s rule. Just eight were conducted during the years of Kim Il-Sung, and twenty-eight during Kim Jong-Il’s regime. In 2022, North Korea’s missile activities reached an all-time high with thirty-nine launches, compared to twenty-five in 2016 and eighteen in 2014.

North Korea’s missile provocations have continued into 2023. As of April 18, North Korea has conducted many tests:

  • January 1: one short-range ballistic KN-25;
  • February 18: one intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Hwasong-15;
  • February 20: two short-range ballistic KN-25s;
  • February 23: four Arrow 2 missiles;
  • March 9: six short-range tactical guided missiles;
  • March 12: two submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs);
  • March 14: two short-range ballistic KN-23s;
  • March 16: one ICBM, Hwasong-17. This took place on the day of the South Korea-Japan Summit;
  • March 19: one short-range ballistic KN-23;
  • March 22: multiple cruise missiles – the North Korean version of Tomahawk. These took place during the joint US-South Korean Freedom Shield command post exercise and the concurrent field training exercise Warrior Shield;
  • March 21-23: test of underwater vehicle Haeil-1;
  • March 25-27: second test of Haeil-1;
  • March 27: two short short-range ballistic KN-23s;
  • April 4-7: test of underwater vehicle Haeil-2;
  • April 13: one ICBM, Hwasong-18.

Despite these tests, reports of food shortages in North Korea continue to emerge. However, experts on North Korea believe that the current food crisis is not severe enough to lead to a famine like the Arduous March in the 1990s, nor to undermine the Kim Jong-Un regime. It is also true that since Russia invaded Ukraine, North Korea has defended Russia consistently. In addition, train movements believed to be connected with arms trading have been detected on the North Korea-Russia border area near the Tumen River. The North Korean regime continues to support Russia, despite international isolation and economic difficulties, because it judges this to be advantageous for its own survival. Russia is a resource-rich country and one of the largest food producers in the world. From Russia’s point of view, it would be easy to supply enough energy and food to North Korea to avoid a major crisis.

In this complex situation, what should we learn from the past, and what strategy should we devise for the future? Above all, North Korea wants normalization of relations with the United States. This was true in the 1990s and 2010s as well. The fact that the Agreed Framework in Geneva was able to come through (although it was later invalidated) and that the Singapore Summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un was also able to achieve its own results—although it did not come to fruition in Hanoi—proves that North Korea wants one-on-one negotiations with the United States, rather than dialogue or unification with South Korea.

Once we acknowledge this, we can get to the essence of the problem. If North Korea had been content with socialism-orientated solidarity with China and Russia, then it would not have started such a reckless nuclear program in the first place. The problem is that, even if we acknowledge and accept this uncomfortable truth, North Korea’s ransom price has already become too high for starting negotiations. Perhaps North Korea would like to engage in disarmament negotiations with the United States alone. However, the nuclear capabilities and operational scopes of the United States and North Korea are completely different from those of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In short, we cannot expect Cold War-era nuclear disarmament negotiations between the United States and North Korea. These hard truths make the so-called “3D” plan proposed by the current Korean government logically valid.

First and foremost, it is important to solidify the system of military cooperation between South Korea, the US, and Japan, and build a mechanism that can respond appropriately to any military contingencies that may occur in East Asia. On December 16, 2022, Japan made a cabinet decision to revise three key documents related to security, including the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and Defense Buildup Program. What would happen if a sign of abnormality in North Korea was judged as an act of aggression, and a preemptive measure was taken by Japan without consulting the South Korean government? According to the Constitution of the Republic of Korea, North Koreans are regarded as citizens of the Republic of Korea: “The territory of the Republic of Korea consists of the Korean Peninsula and its annexed islands.” Of course, South Koreans know that the Constitution of the Republic of Korea is not internationally valid so long as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is also a member state of the United Nations. However, the fact that South Koreans are looking at this issue from the perspective of the ROK Constitution ultimately reveals a deep distrust of Japan.

The Japanese say that it is hard to trust South Korea, because its policies change 180 degrees every time the government changes. However, many Koreans would say that they do not trust Japan, which has historical revisionist voices even amid long-term political continuity. In the end, if we return to the question of how to restore trust in South Korea-Japan relations, the answer would be to revitalize economic and cultural cooperation. If economic interdependence is high and cultural exchange is growing, it can be expected that the way Koreans and Japanese view each other will change. Only when economic cooperation is strong will the two countries be able to approach military cooperation more comfortably and pragmatically.

Second, when the mechanism for close cooperation between South Korea, the US, and Japan comes into play, the China factor becomes an important issue. It is somewhat embarrassing and uncomfortable for the three countries to see China reconciling Iran and Saudi Arabia, and President Xi Jinping and President Vladmir Putin emphasizing their strong friendship. The purpose of trilateral military cooperation is, however, to prepare for every possible contingency, not to disrupt peace in East Asia by aggravating China. In that sense, it is not strategically sound to mention too often and explicitly the possibility of a military crisis over the Taiwan Strait. Since Taiwan also does not want a military conflict, South Korea-US-Japan military cooperation will need to focus more on preparing for contingencies surrounding the Korean Peninsula and the division of labor. China holds the key to resolving the North Korean problem. It is predicted that it will not be easy to resume dialogue with North Korea without acknowledging China’s role.

Lastly, while North Korea’s nuclear capability remains solid, there are voices arguing that it will be more realistic to focus on nonproliferation rather than denuclearization. However, this delicate balance must be approached carefully because it could contribute to a nuclear arms race in East Asia. It is true that as the possibility of nuclear weapons being used became more visible after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the possibility of North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons has become even lower. At the same time, then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo emphasized the argument that Japan should discuss a NATO-like nuclear sharing agreement. However, Japan continues to adhere to the Three Non-Nuclear Principles and Prime Minister Kishida is from Hiroshima, so it is difficult to see whether his administration would support nuclear armament. But as the situation worsens, Japanese public opinion may change. Pro-armament voices are gaining momentum in South Korea. If you look at the results of any poll, you will find that roughly 70 percent of South Koreans respond positively to the idea of their country’s nuclear armament (whether by itself or the reintroduction of American tactical nuclear weapons). Aware of this public sentiment, President Yoon and President Biden upgraded extended deterrence to the next level through the Washington Declaration, released on the 70th anniversary of the ROK-US alliance. In short, if negotiations on denuclearization of North Korea are not initiated, public support for the idea of nuclear sharing or nuclear armament could be revitalized not only in South Korea but also Japan, and even Taiwan—a poor development for peace in East Asia.

For now, therefore, we should do our best to bring North Korea back to the forefront of denuclearization negotiations while solidifying South Korea-US-Japan cooperation so that extended deterrence can certainly work. At some point, there may come a time when this claim becomes colorless. And already some will say that time has passed. Nevertheless, we should not yet give up on the prospect of North Korea’s denuclearization.


Related Articles