After North Korea notched a record-breaking month for missile tests in January, many experts have explained the series of launches by saying that North Korea is trying to draw attention from the United States, as Pyongyang has fallen out of the top priority list due to tensions with China and Russia.
However, this rationale leads the international community and North Korean watchers to misunderstand the intention of the North’s missile tests and what it is aiming to achieve this year.
North Korea is not preparing for future negotiations with the United States and South Korea, nor do its missile tests represent Kim’s desire to return to the negotiating table by enticing the U.S. to make concessions first. More clearly, North Korea will not suddenly come back to the table and respond to Washington’s offer for talks “anytime, anywhere, with no preconditions” this year.
Based on the results of the five-day plenary session of the Eighth Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea in December 2021 and Pyongyang’s latest remarks on the U.S. sanctions and its missile tests, North Korea’s intentions are clear. Pyongyang’s goal is building a concrete foundation for its five-year plan to develop its defense technology and military system. Under that plan – which was introduced in the Eighth Party Congress last year – North Korea seeks to significantly strengthen its nuclear and missile capabilities. By doing so, Pyongyang believes that the U.S. and South Korea would offer more attractive and favorable incentives, including lifting sanctions or partial removal of the so-called “hostile policy” first to deter its growing power and leverage in the region.
No matter how Washington and Seoul respond to the North’s January missile tests, Pyongyang will keep testing more missiles in the coming months while staying silent on the U.S. and South Korean calls for talks. The arms race on the Korean Peninsula will accelerate and the U.S. will impose more sanctions on North Korea when necessary. Consequentially, the U.S. and South Korea’s predictable follow-up measures would eventually trigger North Korea to conduct a nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test. Pyongyang already opened the possibility of reconsidering Kim’s self-moratorium on testing these weapons, which was announced in 2018 in a bid to entice then U.S. President Donald Trump to lift the crippling sanctions against his country.
In the end, Washington and Seoul’s passive and clichéd responses to North Korea’s missile tests will only give more time to Pyongyang to complete its military build-up.
Diplomacy is clearly not working, as North Korea seems to showcase more and more advanced weapons. So what should the U.S. and South Korea do to respond to the North’s missile threats?
Say Goodbye to Strategic Patience and CVID
First, U.S. President Joe Biden should immediately recalibrate his “calibrated and practical” policy on North Korea. It is clear that his policy on North Korea stems from the failed “strategic patience” approach adopted in the Obama administration, even though Biden’s administration has denied this accusation. The Biden administration has been trying to keep the status quo over the North Korea issue while showing rhetorical support for Seoul’s peace process and urging North Korea to come back to the table, without officially suggesting possible incentives North Korea could receive.
As North Korea will ramp up its missile capabilities according to its long-term plan, Biden should publicly announce his specific messages and guidelines for potential talks with Kim so that Pyongyang can reconsider negotiating with Biden’s officials through backchannels. In order to entice North Korea to respond to their messages, U.S. officials need to do more than just saying “We harbor no hostile intent toward” North Korea and expressing a willingness to meet North Korean counterparts “anytime, anywhere, without preconditions.” These vague assertions will never work as North Korea believes its leader was humiliated by Trump in Hanoi. Pyongyang holds the United States fully responsible for breaking the nuclear talks in 2019.
Along with this, Washington should also consider proposing a phased denuclearization process to North Korea. Washington’s CVID (complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement) approach to denuclearization is understandable, but it is also a third party’s approach on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It shows no sense of urgency and suggests the U.S. is not truly invested in a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. The CVID approach has no chance as long as Kim’s regime controls North Korea under the current autocratic system. Kim will never accept CVID, even if the U.S. offered to lift all of the sanctions imposed against North Korea. Meanwhile, China’s growing leverage in the region will also undermine a CVID approach.
Experts know that Kim will never give up his nuclear weapons and will not accept CVID, but both politicians and some North Korea watchers have consistently demanded that Washington to keep this stance toward North Korea. If the U.S. really hopes to achieve denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, it should work closely with South Korea to make a long-term plan for phased denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula – a plan that North Korea can also accept.
The U.S. should also bear in mind that it would eventually need to work with China to reach a deal in nuclear talks with North Korea. Amid deteriorating relations with Beijing, Washington should also attempt to seek a path for multilateral talks for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
South Korea: Time for a New Approach
For its part South Korea should beef up its own military and missile capabilities. As a part of enhancing asymmetric military power, South Korea needs to build a nuclear-powered submarine, but the U.S. has opposed this initiative for decades. Even though the leaders of the two countries agreed in 2021 to remove all restrictions on South Korea’s missile program, Washington’s skepticism toward South Korean moves to build more powerful weapons still lingers. In order to effectively deter North Korea’s growing missile threats, South Korea’s defense capabilities need to be significantly enhanced while being more independent from U.S. military assets. As North Korea is now demanding the withdrawal of the U.S. troops from the South’s soil and a complete halt of the joint South Korea-U.S. military drills, South Korea must develop its domestic missile technology and military capabilities. Through simulations and wargames focused on the South and North’s current military capabilities, Washington and Seoul should closely work together to find out what specific weapons and systems need to be deployed in South Korea – and when pre-emptive strikes should be considered as an option.
Some may argue that this approach would prevent any return to nuclear talks. Critics may also say that it could give a justifiable reason for North Korea to keep developing its own missile program and testing missiles for its self-defense. However, South Korean restraint has not had the desired impact thus far. Strengthen South Korean defense capabilities could add momentum for the two Koreas, the U.S., and China to feel a sense of urgency in disarming the Korean Peninsula. The countries can come to the table for arms control negotiations at some point when North Korea fears South Korea’s military assets alone.
The next South Korean president should consult with Biden to immediately set a new productive approach, including specific guidelines for countermeasures to the North’s missile tests, while reaffirming the importance of the South Korea-U.S. military alliance. Also, the next president should take time to reconsider current President Moon Jae-in’s peace process, such as Moon’s approach to the end-of-war declaration and wartime operational control (OPCON) transfer. South Korean progressive and conservative presidents have made these two security hot potatoes too political in past decades, and have not thoroughly handled these agendas from the perspective of national security. The proceeding timelines for the two initiatives have been changed over and over again. The next South Korean president should stake out a plan with Washington to proceed with these initiatives in an irreversible and coherent manner.
North Korea will keep testing missiles throughout 2022, based on its five-year plan to modernize and develop its military and missile system. With that in mind, strengthening the South’s military capabilities and the South Korea-U.S. military alliance should be considered as top priorities.
Also, there should be a mature understanding of the rationale behind North Korea’s successive missile tests. At heart, the U.S. and its allies do not recognize North Korea as a legitimate country. Instead, many in Washington perceive the North’s missile tests as a childish act on Kim’s part, begging the U.S. for attention. No matter what experts and politicians of the U.S. and South Korea say, North Korea is testing missiles to fulfill its own military ambitions, not to draw attention from the United States. As long as this outdated perspective remains, the U.S. and South Korea will be continuously dragged on by Kim’s playbook.
The time is ticking on the U.S. and South Korea’s side, as North Korea has made clear its plan to conduct military activities regularly and strengthen its military capabilities while focusing on reviving its devastated economy. Therefore, Washington and Seoul should recalibrate their policies and overtures on North Korea in a timely manner.