The Korean nuclear peninsula: even more dangerous for world peace than the war in Ukraine?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

The holiday season usually offers a break – welcome or otherwise – from political news and international crises. The end of 2022 lived up to this billing. The headlines were dominated by the deaths of Pope Emeritus Benedikt XVI, Brazilian footballer Pele and British fashion designer, Vivienne Westwood, as well as by Prince Harry’s revelations in his tell-all memoir, “Spare”, which I would have personally retitled “Please Spare All of Us”. Yet as we went once more in search of some festive diversions, we can always rely on one political leader to play the Grinch at Christmas and disrupt this time of peace and goodwill with a hearty dose of tensions, threats and escalation. As so often in the past, that leader was Kim Jong-Un of North Korea.

From this perspective, Christmas 2022 was vintage Kim. As we were tucking into our turkey, Kim was launching three new short-range rockets 400km into the sea off the coast of Japan. This brought the number of missile tests that North Korea carried out in 2022 to over 70, the highest number by Pyongyang so far. To up the ante, Kim also sent four drones into South Korea’s airspace, one of which allegedly flew close to the presidential residence in Seoul. Apparently, these drones were too small to be picked up by South Korea’s air defence and air tracking systems, leading immediately to widespread political and media criticism of the South Korean armed forces for their lack of preparedness. The government in Seoul sent three of its drones into North Korea as a form of retaliation, but the debate in Seoul was focused much more on the urgent need to invest in the South Korean military’s counter-drone technology, such as lasers, jammers and air defence artillery.

Provocations from the North, usually justified by Kim as a response to US-South Korean joint military exercises or alleged US plans to create an Asian NATO, are of course nothing new. Over the years, islands off the coast of South Korea have been shelled by North Korea and North Korean submarines have sunk South Korean patrol boats, not to mention endless cyber-attacks and financial scams, such as currency counterfeiting and cryptocurrency manipulations, and several decades ago, even an attempt to wipe out the entire South Korean cabinet in a terror bombing when it was on an overseas trip to Thailand. Yet, what was noteworthy about the Christmas salvo of threats from Kim was that they formed part of a much wider escalatory package than what we have seen before.

Experts believe that Kim is aiming for the launch of a military reconnaissance satellite on 15 April

Speaking at a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, Kim announced an “exponential expansion” in North Korea’s nuclear weapons programmes, both in terms of quality and quantity. In addition to developing tactical nuclear missiles, he gave a list of capabilities that North Korea is currently working on: hypersonic missiles, an underwater nuclear-tipped missile and a solid fuelled intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching all parts of the US. Kim told the Workers’ Party delegates that, in early December, North Korea had carried out a series of tests to demonstrate the reliability of the solid fuel propellant of this long-range missile and its capability to carry multiple warheads similar to US or Russian nuclear weapons. Kim also used the opportunity to announce that North Korea had developed a ‘Super Large Multiple Rocket Launcher’, something that Western defence experts were already aware of as, in mid-December, it was tested in a live firing exercise against targets on a small island off the North Korean coastline. Finally, Kim returned to one of his priority military projects: putting into orbit a military reconnaissance satellite that can photograph potential targets with military-grade precision. Pyongyang has suffered a series of launch failures in the past and finally succeeded in putting a reconnaissance satellite into low earth orbit in 2021. It certainly does not produce military-grade precision, but this does not stop North Korea from publishing rather hazy pictures of Seoul and other South Korean cities taken from its satellite in an attempt to intimidate its southern neighbour.

Kim’s nuclear and missile shopping list is certainly ambitious. Yet, given the resources and effort that North Korea has long put into its nuclear weapons programme, at the cost of neglecting its economic development and the welfare of its long-suffering population, experts on Asia-Pacific security believe that it is realistic and achievable. Indeed, these experts believe that Kim is aiming for the launch of a military reconnaissance satellite on 15 April, the birthday of Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who founded the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the late 1940s, just prior to the Korean War. Experts have also been unnerved by signs that North Korea may be preparing to resume nuclear testing. Like the missile launches, nuclear tests would also be in violation of a number of United Nations Resolutions that have been imposed on Pyongyang in recent times for its failure to uphold its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its clandestine sales of missile technologies and conventional arms to third parties. The latest allegations concern secret sales of ammunition to Russia to be used by the Kremlin in its war against Ukraine. As nuclear tests have not been conducted by North Korea for over five years, and North Korea even began to dismantle its nuclear testing site at Nyongbyon in the hope of obtaining some sanctions relief to import food and medicines, a resumption of testing would be a policy reversal by Pyongyang that would woud sharply increase tensions on the Korean peninsula. Kim has already taken one dangerous step last year by adopting a new nuclear doctrine and law to allow North Korea to carry out pre-emptive strikes against its adversaries and to use nuclear weapons first in a future conflict. Taken together, these steps significantly lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons and give any potential crisis between North Korea and South Korea and its allies, the US and Japan, an even greater nuclear dimension at an early stage of the crisis than was the case up to now.

So, why is Kim ramping up nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula at this moment in time?

The Biden administration has worked hard to bring Seoul and Tokyo closer together by organising regular trilateral defence talks, and naval and air exercises

As always, one explanation is an attempt to attract attention and put North Korea on the political agenda in Washington and other leading capitals. In contrast to Donald Trump, who held two highly visible summits with Kim in Singapore and Vietnam, President Joe Biden has shown far more reluctance to engage with Kim, focusing instead on improving military ties with Seoul, including the resumption of major joint and live military exercises, which Trump had cancelled in an effort to entice North Korea into a nuclear deal. In the belief that Washington, increasingly within the range of North Korean nuclear missiles, cannot ignore him indefinitely, Kim may be hoping – with his nuclear escalation – to improve his negotiating position and gain more significant sanctions relief in return for making concessions. He needs to show the North Korean population that being a major illegal nuclear weapons state is not only good for international prestige but also brings the country some material benefits. But this has not happened yet, as Kim’s failure to persuade Trump during their two summits to lift the sanctions against North Korea aptly demonstrated. Trump insisted on North Korea’s full denuclearisation first, which was unacceptable to Kim as it would have taken away his only bargaining chip.

Another objective of Kim may be to force the UN Security Council to recognise North Korea as a legitimate nuclear weapons state. Under the terms of the NPT, this status is limited to the P5 members of the UN Security Council, namely the US, Russia, China, France and the UK. Being a legitimate nuclear weapons state means that sanctions cannot be imposed due to the possession of nuclear weapons or the carrying out of nuclear weapons programmes. Yet, it is inconceivable that the UN Security Council would move in this direction. North Korea has a long history of cheating on its NPT commitments, for instance, in frustrating or blocking inspections of its nuclear facilities by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency and ultimately in withdrawing from the NPT altogether. Moreover, allowing another state into the select club of recognised nuclear weapons states would fatally undermine the authority of the NPT, which is already reeling from its failures to rein in the nuclear activities of Iran and of non-participating nuclear weapons states such as India, Pakistan and Israel. It would send a signal that nuclear weapons are a perfectly normal and necessary means of national defence at a time when over 100 countries have come together in a new treaty to ban them altogether: the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Finally, Kim may well be reacting to the tougher stance that is emerging from South Korea. The recent elections in that country brought to power President Yoon, who criticised his predecessor, Moon, for being too soft on the North in the mistaken belief that more economic exchanges, such as operating a free trade zone across the border in North Korea, would moderate its behaviour and slow down its nuclear weapons development. Promising no more “sunshine policies”, Yoon has embarked on a significant modernisation of South Korea’s military and just before Christmas announced a major five-year procurement programme with a significant budget increase. Some of the new capabilities concern space and putting more military observation satellites into orbit. Japan has announced a similar programme of military modernisation and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida is touting this during his current tour of the G7 capitals to present Japan’s programme and priorities for its G7 Presidency in 2023. In the past, Japan and South Korea had a rather cool diplomatic relationship based on historical grievances and some maritime territorial disputes. Yet, the Biden administration has worked hard to bring Seoul and Tokyo closer together by organising regular trilateral defence talks, and naval and air exercises. This rapprochement, also explained by China’s more assertive military behaviour in the Indo-Pacific, has worried Kim. He has seen not only the resumption of US-South Korean live military exercises but also the US install its most advanced air and missile defence system, THAAD, on South Korean territory.

Trying not just to contain Kim but to induce him to become a more responsible and reasonable international actor focused on the economic and social modernisation of his country […] has to be a key task of Western diplomacy

More recently, Washington and South Korea have stepped up their cooperation on nuclear deterrence after the US withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea already more than a decade ago. They have spoken of joint training and planning for nuclear deterrence and of the joint management of US nuclear weapons, such as strategic bombers, that could be returned by the US to the Korean Peninsula. However, when asked earlier this month about possible US-South Korean joint nuclear exercises, President Biden answered with a snappy “no”.

South Korea seems to be seeking a nuclear sharing arrangement with the US modelled on the NATO system where the US stores sub-strategic nuclear bombs in five European NATO member states and these five states provide the dual-capable aircraft to fly the US nuclear bombs to their targets in the event of war. This type of nuclear role and responsibility sharing probably goes too far for the US to accept at the present time, yet there have been positive results for Yoon. The US has agreed to step up its intelligence sharing with Seoul and South Korea has been assured of the US commitment to extend its nuclear deterrence to South Korea, notwithstanding the withdrawal of the US tactical nuclear weapons from the country. In the wake of the recent drone incursions, Yoon has also spoken of revoking the 2018 military agreement with North Korea that at least provided for some limited transparency and confidence-building measures along the heavily mined 38th parallel, which constitutes the border between the two countries.

Nuclear escalation and increased reliance on nuclear weapons for security on the Korean Peninsula cannot be welcome news, especially with North Korea no longer restrained by the NPT or the prospect of nuclear deals to obtain sanctions relief in the foreseeable future. The regime of Kim Jong Un is as brutal and repressive as those of his two predecessors. It is equally unpredictable and insular, seeing the outside world as implacably hostile to it, with the exception of some help from China and Russia. Faced with a collapsing economy, not helped by Pyongyang’s tardy and inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic or by the prospect of a popular revolt to change the regime, there is the danger of Kim and his acolytes hitting out and provoking a crisis or even nuclear conflict on the basis of misread signals or imaginary threats. At the same time, as the US and its Indo-Pacific partners turn their attention towards the rapid growth in China’s military power, the last thing they need is to be constantly diverted by North Korea’s latest provocations or its growing role as one of the world’s foremost illicit arms suppliers and troublemakers.

So, trying not just to contain Kim but to induce him to become a more responsible and reasonable international actor focused on the economic and social modernisation of his country – which he promises in all his speeches – has to be a key task of Western diplomacy. Certainly, South Korea and the US must also be able to negotiate from a position of strength. The willingness of Seoul to invest in its defence and to pay more for the stationing of nearly 40,000 US troops in South Korea is as welcome as it is necessary. Yet, deterrence and defence are the means to negotiate a reduction in threats and tensions, wherever possible, and not a substitute for diplomacy.

By reducing risks, a stepwise process is less open to criticism and harder for others to overturn. It helps build confidence

So, what could be realistically achieved by Yoon as he embarks on his presidency, without lapsing back into the false hopes and unmatched concessions of his predecessors’ sunshine policies?

The first point is not to return to the over-ambitious schemes of Trump, who over-estimated the capacity of individual charm and personal diplomacy to cut a deal with Kim, which would see the latter abandon all his nuclear programmes in exchange for a peace agreement to formally end the Korean War of 1950-1953 and to lift all sanctions. The problem with this kind of sweeping deal is that each side wants the other to go first given the lack of trust. Neither wants to give up its bargaining chip until the other has satisfied all the conditions, which implies the acceptance of enormous risk and short-term vulnerabilities. At the same time, many factors are left out of this type of quid pro quo deal, such as North Korea’s superiority in the size of its conventional forces or its unacceptable international behaviour in organised crime and arms trafficking. The sanctions against Pyongyang, like those against Iran, are not only linked to illicit nuclear activities. Many are the responsibility of the UN, not just the US. What about South Korea’s possibility to develop nuclear weapons in the future or for the US to re-install nuclear weapons in South Korea? A quid pro quo agreement that does not change the character of a hostile relationship might not add to security or give it to one partner (the US) at the expense of another (South Korea).

Instead, a more cautious and step-by-step approach is needed. This tests the seriousness of both sides, their capacity to deliver on agreements and makes costs and benefits even for each side at each stage of the process. By reducing risks, a stepwise process is less open to criticism and harder for others to overturn. It helps build confidence.

One idea might be for Seoul and Pyongyang to exchange annual information about their nuclear facilities but not specific weapons programmes. India and Pakistan have a frequently hostile relationship, but they have managed to conduct this annual exchange as a transparency measure for several years now. It is not that this annual exchange of fairly generic information tells either side anything that it does not already know. Yet, the exchange promotes contact and helps to maintain a channel of dialogue, so it could be worth emulating on the Korean Peninsula.

Another idea might be for both sides to agree not to send observation drones across the border. Armed drones definitely need to be excluded from such flights. A coordination centre could be established at the border with communications links to the national security councils in both Seoul and Pyongyang to clear up incidents and accidents, for instance, a technical malfunction of a drone. A related agreement might be not to interfere with the satellite observation of each other’s territory by banning in particular anti-satellite weapons and tests.

Sanctions could only be lifted in return for NPT compliance and full denuclearisation

Similarly, both North and South Korea could agree to prior notification and a systematic, balanced exchange of information on their military exercises. Military observers from both sides could be invited to watch these exercises and to ask questions or raise issues, which would receive answers within a specified timeframe. Calendars of planned military exercises for the year ahead could be exchanged each January, as for the nuclear facilities, with a commitment to communicate modifications and updates. The holding of exercises near borders could also be constrained and the larger the planned exercise, the longer the advance notice and the more information would have to be provided.

The US and South Korea could also conclude an agreement on the prevention of incidents at sea, as provocative naval behaviour by Pyongyang and the ramming of ships have produced many a crisis in the past. Hence again, a regime governing exercises and a better system of communication are needed.

North Korea has to be brought back into the NPT and refrain from more nuclear testing. This will not be easy, particularly in a North-South relationship where each side claims to be responding in self defence to the provocations caused by the other. Yet, getting UN observers back into North Korea is key to enhancing transparency and breaking through the fog of Pyongyang taking half measures for propaganda purposes, as with the proclaimed destruction of its nuclear testing site. This is where significant sanctions relief in humanitarian areas like food, fertiliser and medical supplies can help, as can lifting restrictions on the export of North Korean coal and minerals. Yet, it probably will not be possible without pressure from China or Russia, which seems unlikely in the present international context. This said, neither Russia nor China have an interest in a nuclear-armed North Korea, nor in a catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula, which could well result in a reunified Korea under Seoul closely allied to the US. Washington could perhaps also prepare the ground by committing to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and committing not to place nuclear weapons in South Korea in peacetime as long as North Korea complies fully with its NPT obligations.

Pending this objective, the best that could be achieved would probably be a return to something like the framework agreement that the Clinton administration concluded with North Korea in the mid-1990s. It provided for a freeze on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, which was much smaller then, in exchange for the US agreeing to help North Korea with the development of peaceful, civilian nuclear energy through the transfer of graphite-moderated nuclear reactor technology. The advantage of the latter is that it could not easily be converted to the production of highly enriched uranium necessary to produce a nuclear weapon. Soon after its conclusion, the deal broke down, as Republicans in the US Congress proved reluctant to supply North Korea with subsidised coal to improve its energy supply or to give it sophisticated nuclear know-how. Equally, Pyongyang was against any of this nuclear technology coming from South Korea and giving its neighbour a prestige or commercial advantage. Yet, as a stopgap measure designed to halt the nuclear spiral downward, something like a freeze deal could be tried again. North Korea’s dire economic situation with the recurrent threat of famine or pandemics could make it attractive to Kim and his entourage. A freeze on missile flights and tests beyond a range of 150km would also need to be part of this agreement. North Korea could be offered a step-by-step and graduated lifting of sanctions for every year that it observes the freeze. But many sanctions could only be lifted in return for NPT compliance and full denuclearisation, as well as North Korea abandoning criminal activity. So, sorting out the sequence would require some delicate consultations among the allies.

Kim’s build-ups are as much about persuading Seoul and Washington that they have to deal with him as they are about preparing the ground for a future military victory

The task for South Korea and the US, working with Japan and their other regional and international partners, is now to come up with a package that can induce Kim to backtrack on his plans for “exponential nuclear expansion” and be ready to negotiate. Of course, negotiations with rogue regimes are always distasteful, but this hasn’t stopped the US and the EU from doing this intensively with Iran in recent times. Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) before its abrogation by the Trump administration in 2018 shows that even rogue regimes are capable of keeping their commitments if they can obtain significant sanctions relief. It can be rightly argued that none of the measures suggested here are the panacea that will halt overnight North Korea’s capacity to threaten South Korea, Japan, the US and potentially other countries with nuclear strikes or to stop its posturing and reckless behaviour. But a start has to be made somewhere, and Kim’s build-ups are as much about persuading Seoul and Washington that they have to deal with him as they are about preparing the ground for a future military victory against his adversaries.

As diplomats are fond of saying: you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends. So, a twin policy of sturdy deterrence coupled with a readiness for dialogue is the only way forward with North Korea. It is difficult to pile more sanctions on Pyongyang, which is suffering under so many already. Naturally, there are those that see negotiations under threat as giving into blackmail, but dialogue is not the same as making premature and unrequited concessions. It is about offering North Korea and its people alternatives and options for its future away from endless nuclear sabre-rattling, while deterrence avoids a situation where the negotiations have to be on Pyongyang’s terms only. Having a hawk-like President Yoon lead the talks might be more reassuring for the US and its Western partners than one of his more dovish predecessors. Let’s see how the diplomatic track plays out in the year ahead. Hopefully our turkey dinner next Christmas will be disrupted by a speech from Kim announcing the termination of one of his nuclear programmes instead of boasting about all his new ones.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.


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