Nature abhors a vacuum; so too does North Korea.
It was always predictable then that Pyongyang would try to refocus international attention on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula and push Washington back to the negotiating table. There is little indication, however, that the United States will oblige and be moved to re-engage.
While the Biden administration insists that it is ready to talk “any time, any place,” North Korea must show its own willingness to discuss eventual denuclearization. For Pyongyang, that is a nonstarter. Expect then more provocations and the continuing improvement of the North’s military, and its nuclear arsenal in particular.
The most recent provocations began last weekend, when North Korea test-fired two “new-type, long-range” cruise missiles. According to the official Korean Central News Agency, the new missile is “a strategic weapon of great significance” that traveled nearly two hours, conducting inflight maneuvers. before hitting targets 1,500 km away. On Wednesday, North Korea fired two ballistic missiles that landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Sea of Japan.
The ballistic missile tests were the first since March, when Pyongyang launched two short-range missiles — those in turn the first in over a year — and the first to land in the EEZ since October 2019. The country also test-fired a cruise missile just after U.S. President Joe Biden took office; North Korea typically greets a new U.S. president with such a challenge.
Those tests are not the only provocations. The International Atomic Energy Agency has reported that North Korea appears to have resumed activities at its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. While it is not the North’s only nuclear facility, it has long been the focus of global attention and an easy pawn to play.
Pyongyang could be responding to any number of developments. The United States and South Korea last month held their annual joint military exercises, which invariably irritate North Korea and demand (in its eyes) a reply. In addition, South Korea last week announced that it had conducted its first successful underwater test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile, making it only the eighth country to possess that capability.
On the diplomatic front, senior officials from Japan, the U.S. and South Korea who work on North Korea issues met earlier this week in Tokyo to discuss and coordinate positions. At the same time, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in South Korea meeting with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, and President Moon Jae-in.
It is a mistake, however, to suggest that North Korea tests are mere responses to diplomatic or military developments. Missile launches can’t be scheduled overnight; planning and preparation are required. Weighing more heavily on North Korean calculations are perceived security demands. Tests are designed to meet operational requirements. Diplomatic signaling is an additional, but still secondary, benefit.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the launch of ballistic missiles “threatens the peace and security of our country and the region and is outrageous.” Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi used similar language, as did Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato in statements condemning the tests.
They aren’t exaggerating. When North Korea refers to a “strategic weapon,” it is talking about one capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The announced range of the missiles would allow them to hit targets throughout Japan. Cruise missiles are stealthy, able to fly low and maneuver to avoid defensive systems. Japan is being threatened in new ways. In a statement released after the test, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command noted North Korea’s “continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community.” It reiterated, however, that “the U.S. commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad.”
A spokesperson for President Biden reiterated the U.S. commitment to a diplomatic solution that will yield complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. seeks a “calibrated, practical approach” that will “make practical progress that increases the security of the United States, our allies, our deployed forces.” And, the administration continues to offer “to meet anywhere, anytime without preconditions.”
That offer has not tempted North Korea. Nuclear talks have been stalled since the collapse of the 2019 Hanoi summit between then-President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. For Pyongyang, the U.S. demand that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons is unreasonable and proof of Washington’s implacable hostility.
Even though there is no reason to believe that a North Korean capability undermines the U.S. deterrent or its commitment to defend its allies, Japan should be prepared to do more. Greater investment in defense, intelligence and surveillance capabilities is required. The country needs a serious debate about the acquisition of offensive strike capabilities as well. This discussion must include all the important elements. Attention has been given to the legal, political and strategic dimensions, but the budgetary consequences have been relatively neglected. Developing a strike capability will incur opportunity costs unless Japan is prepared to spend considerably more on defense.
Dealing with North Korea is complicated by the country’s increasing isolation. Pyongyang’s decision to close borders to prevent COVID-19 infection has made intelligence collection, always hard, even more difficult. Many individuals who could provide insight — diplomats, business professionals and aid workers — have left the country. Defections have plummeted and there has been a crackdown on illegal cell phones.
There remains a desire to engage North Korea. In addition to the U.S. offer, Japanese officials have reiterated their readiness to meet with North Korean counterparts. President Moon remains even more committed to engagement. While Pyongyang refuses to reach out and is ever ready to serve up rhetorical blasts, it maintains its moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, a sign that it has not abandoned all hope for diplomacy. It is testing weapons and testing the Biden administration’s tolerance. Its priority remains the first of those two concerns.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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