Relations between both the United States and North Korea and between North Korea and South Korea have long been at a standstill, with the mood for dialogue that existed in 2018-2019 now entirely a thing of the past. . Gone are the days when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un himself talked about “denuclearization,” even if only superficially. Today, North and South Korea are locked in an arms race.
The conservative government of President Yoon Suk-yeol was inaugurated in South Korea in May 2022. Since the beginning of the year, North Korea has been increasing the frequency of its missile tests, and the development of nuclear missiles is clearly now its default course. This is based on a medium-term strategy that is a “five-year plan to develop a weapon system and national defense science”, which was adopted at the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in January 2021.
Yoon maintains a tough stance on North Korea and emphasizes the importance of the US-South Korea alliance. A former attorney general with no parliamentary experience, Yoon’s diplomatic and security advisers are closely aligned with the previous Lee Myung-bak administration. So Seoul’s policy toward North Korea has changed little from that of the Lee administration. The “bold plan” Yoon presented in August was to provide step-by-step assistance, such as food and medical infrastructure, depending on the status of North Korea’s denuclearization. This was simply an “arrogant” policy reminiscent of the failures of the Lee administration. The fact is that movement in inter-Korean relations is difficult in the absence of progress in the United States and North Korea, as evidenced by the failures of inter-Korean dialogue under the Moon Jae-in administration.
Former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak came to power in 2008 championing “Vision 3000: Denuclearization and Opening Up,” which aimed to help North Korea reach $3,000 per capita income in 10 years if denuclearization was opened up and adopted. Hopes for this policy ended in 2010 when North Korea collapsed the ROKS Cheonan and bombed Yeonpyeong, two acts that cost lives in South Korea. Both provocations took place when Kim Jong-il was leader, but there have been persistent suggestions that Kim Jong-un, who had just been named as his successor, ordered them.
Lee’s failure to hold an inter-Korean summit should not be repeated. However, for now, the possibility that North Korea will once again try to directly attack South Korea cannot be ruled out. After all, the means of retaliation available to the United States and South Korea against North Korea, a de facto nuclear power, are limited.
North Korea is focusing on developing short-range missiles, including hypersonic missiles that are difficult to intercept because signs of their imminent launch are difficult to detect. There is no doubt that if and when negotiations with the United States resume, the first thing Washington will demand will be the dismantling of any ICBM that may reach the North American continent. Whether this happens after the Biden administration, as Pyongyang assumes, the North Koreans have determined that they should focus on preparing for real combat by investing in developing missiles that can reach US forces in South Korea, Japan and Guam.
Speaking at the military parade held in Pyongyang earlier this year to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army, Kim Jong-un personally retracted his earlier claim that nuclear weapons are a ” deterrence,” saying they have a “second mission,” hinting at the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
Earlier, in October last year, Kim had said that “our main enemy is war itself, not any particular state or power, such as South Korea or the United States.” Belying those words, North Korea has adopted a hostile stance toward the United States and even South Korea since the beginning of the year. Kim has declared South Korea’s deepening security cooperation with the United States and Japan a “provocation.” These hardline comments have been widely reported in North Korea through the Sinmun Roundabout and Korean Central Television, as a signal to the North Korean people not to expect diplomatic progress in the near future.
The invasion of non-nuclear-weapon Ukraine by nuclear-armed Russia would likely have offered an additional incentive for Pyongyang to strengthen its national defense capabilities, and unless the United States decides to make significant concessions to North Korea North, Kim will continue with his current policy of nuclear weapons. In South Korea, Yoon’s approval rating has not only languished due to inflation and mismanagement of personnel, his government is struggling to get anything done as he will be a minority party in government until the general election in ‘April 2024. Seoul cannot give up its hard line. stance against North Korea, which includes responding when missiles are launched, as he needs to consolidate support among domestic conservatives. Ultimately, however, this approach will only encourage more North Korean provocations.
ISOZAKI Atsuhito is a professor at Keio University.