How do you solve a problem like Korea?
How do you solve a problem like Korea?
Jamie McIntyre October 14, 11:00 PMOctober 14, 11:01 PM
When President Joe Biden addressed the United Nations General Assembly last month, his North Korea policy merited a brief, two-sentence mention.
“We seek serious and sustained diplomacy to pursue the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Biden said. “We seek concrete progress toward an available plan with tangible commitments that would increase stability on the peninsula and in the region, as well as improve the lives of the people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
In Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was paying little attention, having given up on talks with the United States after feeling burned by the Trump administration, and now embarked on his own “Build Back Better” plan to bolster his arsenal with an array of new, nuclear-capable weaponry.
Since Biden was elected, and especially in recent weeks, North Korea has been showcasing a cavalcade of ominous new capabilities, including a submarine-launched ballistic missile, a long-range cruise missile, and a hypersonic glide vehicle — all capable of carrying nuclear warheads and all designed to thwart U.S. missile defenses.
In his most recent speech delivered with a backdrop of missiles at a defense development exhibition, Kim blamed the U.S. for inflaming tensions on the Korean Peninsula and vowed to build “a world-class military capability,” which would provide an “invincible line of self-defense.”
“We are not talking about a war with someone. We are building up war deterrent true to the meaning of the words in order to prevent the war itself,” Kim said, according to an English translation of a Korean Central News Agency report.
“Our archenemy is the war itself, not South Korea, the United States, or any other specific state or forces.”
The speech seemed to signal that North Korea has dropped any pretense of giving up its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
And according to longtime Korea watchers, it appears equally clear the Biden administration, despite making a big show of consulting with South Korea and Japan, has no viable plan to restart the moribund denuclearization talks.
“The Biden administration has no North Korea strategy or policy — none,” Harry Kazianis, a Korea expert at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest, said.
“They will, of course, say they are willing to talk to Pyongyang at any place, any time, and over any issue. However, they offer no specifics on what they would talk about, what concessions Washington could offer, what Biden and his team are looking for from North Korea, and what a new relationship with the Kim family might look like.”
In March, a senior administration official told reporters that after “an extraordinarily thorough process … we’re nearing the conclusion of putting together our approach for North Korea.”
“The administration claims to have done a multimonth policy review on North Korea, and yet, there is no specifics besides a vague offer of talks, but nothing that looks like a policy,” Kazianis said. “To date, Biden has given zero policy speeches on North Korea.”
U.S. officials never miss a chance to declare the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea as “ironclad,” but with the Pentagon now fixated on China’s rapid buildup and its increasingly hostile actions toward Taiwan, there are signs the problem of North Korea’s nuclear program is moving to the back burner.
In an op-ed in the Washington Post, a pair of academics from Dartmouth College suggest it may be time for South Korea to consider acquiring its own nuclear deterrent.
The prospect of another war on the Korean Peninsula has always been a frightening one, with casualties projected as more than 1 million on both sides.
And that’s just with conventional weapons.
With North Korea intent on having a credible nuclear option, its calculus in the event of conflict might be catastrophically different, contended professors Jennifer Lind and Daryl Press.
“In the event of war, leaders in Pyongyang would have powerful incentives to use nuclear weapons to stalemate South Korea’s conventional military superiority. Should the United States retaliate, the American homeland would become a target,” Lind and Press wrote.
“South Korea can’t be sure it can depend on its U.S. ally for protection. At the very moment that the two countries’ strategic priorities are diverging, the risks that the United States must bear to defend South Korea are growing a thousandfold,” argued the Dartmouth professors. “North Korea, too, may question whether Washington would rush to Seoul’s aid during a war when doing so would threaten the survival of the United States.”
A nuclear-armed South Korea is not an option favored by Washington.
For one thing, it would violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which South Korea is a member.
But the treaty has an opt-out clause if a nation faces “extraordinary events” that “have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.”
“North Korea’s illegal development of nuclear weapons and its threats against the South certainly qualify as extraordinary circumstances,” the professors wrote.
Last month, South Korea became the first country without nuclear weapons to test a submarine-launched ballistic missile successfully.
A submarine is an expensive way to deliver conventional missiles but an ideal platform for launching nuclear missiles.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un insists the real problem is South Korea’s “outdated and anachronistic worry and anxiety and illusory sense of mission that the North’s threat should be contained.”
In his Oct. 12 speech, Kim called on the South to “free themselves from the excessive crisis-consciousness and persecution complex as soon as possible.”
“I want to reiterate,” he said. “South Korea is not the target of our armed forces.”
“Kim likely concluded he wasted a lot of political capital back home in trying to get a deal in Hanoi back in 2019, so he is leery of talking to the U.S. again, as he has no idea what is on offer or what the actual policy is,” Kazianis said. “Why take a risk again, having no idea of what you will get in return? And in the absence of clarity from Biden, he will do what every Kim does: show off their weapons in a more escalatory manner to try to get attention.”
Jamie McIntyre is the Washington Examiner’s senior writer on defense and national security. His morning newsletter, “Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense,” is free and available by email subscription at dailyondefense.com.
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Originally appeared at Washington Examiner