North Korea stepped up its quest for nuclear prowess over the weekend with the launch of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). As could be expected, the move invited international criticism, with the U.N. Security Council condemning the launch as “yet another serious violation” of UNSC resolutions restricting Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs.
It is impossible not to sense the global exasperation at the repeated North Korean provocations and condemnations that lead to nowhere, only to see the cycle continuously repeat itself. Experts say the United States and South Korea must do more than look down their noses at the North — they must take action to prevent further advances in North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.
Park Hwee-rhak, a political science professor at Kookmin University, assesses that this week’s showing is about three times more serious than North Korea’s 2013 nuclear test. Despite the country’s weak economy, military progress has accelerated under Kim Jong-un in comparison to the gains made under his late father, the longtime strongman Kim Jong-il. South Korea’s Ministry of Defense predicted the North would have an operational SLBM in three to four years, which it shortened to two to three years after the latest showing, but many experts, including Park, believe it could be one to two years or even less.
Yet public apathy and political pussyfooting create a toxic environment that is reinforcing attitudes of hesitation and inaction, experts say. Continuing to nudge the issue under the rug only makes the problem worse for future generations.
“The most dangerous thing is that the South Korean people and the U.S. military are getting immune to the emergence of new threats from North Korea,” says Park. He adds that they like to think that North Korean threats are a show for domestic purposes to consolidate public support under Kim’s flaunted military muscle, but no one wants to believe Pyongyang’s intentions to “unify” the Koreas with nuclear weapons.
The North’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology still lacks the capability reach the United States, says Park, but the submarine-launched ballistic missile, which Park says is relatively easy to develop, could put the U.S. mainland in danger in as little as one to two years.
Park says North Korea is using its missiles to drive a wedge into the South Korea-U.S. alliance, with the ultimate aim of isolating South Korea and “unifying” the Koreas through nuclear weapons. North Korea is trying to force the United States to question its priorities — should Washington keep its word that it would protect the South unconditionally or defend its territory despite the threat of an attack on the U.S. mainland?
“If North Korea succeeds [in developing] the SLBM which can strike the U.S., the U.S. would be in a serious question — should the U.S. try to attack North Korea with nuclear weapons as retaliation [for an attack on South Korea], with the risk of North Korea’s nuclear attack onto Seattle or San Francisco or Los Angeles?” says Park. It questions the fundamentals of the alliance, and tests how far Washington would go to risk its own citizenry in order to protect the people of another country. “It’s not the U.S.’s fault if that situation occurs,” Park adds. “Most countries would protect their own people if assisting foreign allies.”
Experts believe the vicious cycle of North Korean provocations is doomed to repeat itself as long as the United States is stunted by inaction. Now is the time when Washington should be applying more pressure, they say, but the South’s ally has little incentive to get more involved due to limited national interest and a focus on slimming down its own government and military.
“There’s much risk to take, and not a lot of gain” for the United States, says Yang Uk, a senior fellow at the Korea Defense and Security Forum in South Korea.
It may no longer be North Korea that is crying wolf with its nuclear threats, as experts have come to accept the country’s growing capabilities. The bluff seems rather the U.S. and international community’s warnings against the North. From their stern but toothless warnings, Yang says the North is learning a message of tolerance.
“It’s kind of like a spoiled child. No one says ‘no’ hard enough, and the child will be much more spoiled,” Yang said.
“No one thought North Korea would have nuclear weapons or SLBMs, but year by year they are getting it. And when they get it, it’s a whole new power game,” he added. “At least by 2030, the ICBM and SLBM will be operational. Then it will be too late.”