The arms race on the Korean Peninsula will linger following the Ukraine crisis. North Korea tested a cruise missile as part of an effort to develop its reconnaissance satellite system on February 27; it may conduct more satellite launches in the coming weeks while U.S. attention is focused on Eastern Europe.
Also, if the United States and South Korea conduct joint military drills in March or April as planned, North Korea may test an improved version of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) as a countermeasure, as the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he no longer felt bound by his self-moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests. Pyongyang may also consider an ICBM test to send a strong signal after the new South Korean president takes office in May.
When North Korea conducted nuclear and ballistic missile tests in 2017, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously supported imposing further sanctions against North Korea. However, China and Russia blocked the UNSC in January from imposing sanctions on five North Koreans who are involved in the North’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile developments. They will likely block any similar U.S. push to impose sanctions on North Korea again in the coming months, even if it tests nuclear devices or ballistic missiles.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has kept sending messages to the North that dialogue is the only way that can establish permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. However, as Moon’s peace process has de facto ended with no substantive results on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it will be up to the next South Korean president to tackle the issue. The two leading presidential candidates have explicitly different approaches to North Korea.
Lee Jae-myung, the candidate from the ruling Democratic Party, will take up the mantle of Moon’s peace process for North Korea issues while pursuing it in a more practical way. A Lee administration could raise a hawkish voice if North Korea escalates military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
On the other hand, Yoon Suk-yeol from the People Power Party, South Korea’s main opposition party, will not actively seek room to engage in dialogue with Kim. Yoon has appealed to the conservative party’s old school policy on North Korea issues – strengthening military capabilities to deter North Korea’s missile threats and strengthen the South Korea- U.S. military alliance.
While Lee has emphasized the importance of constructing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula through “dialogue,” which is the same message Moon has given, Yoon argues that peace can only come when the North fears the South’s defense capabilities.
Yoon once opened the possibility of reintroducing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on the South’s soil but, since Washington publicly refuted his remarks, he has shifted his position. However, given the situation in Ukraine, more and more South Koreans would support the country to develop its own nuclear weapons to confront North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities. Ukraine gave up its post-Soviet nuclear arsenal in return for security guarantees; the current war shows those guarantees were not enough to ensure Ukraine’s sovereignty or safety.
According to a poll released by the Chicago Council last week, 71 percent of South Koreans support developing the country’s own nuclear program. The eye-catching point is that 67 percent of the respondents would prefer an independent arsenal while only 9 percent support the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons when asked to choose between the two options.
When the Biden administration withdrew U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Washington and Seoul reassured South Koreans that a withdrawal of the roughly 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea was not in the cards.
However, since Washington failed to deter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while also ruling out the possibility of deploying troops to protect Ukraine, the future South Korean government could face more demands from South Koreans to build the country’s own nuclear weapons for self-defense – even though Washington has already made clear that it has a commitment to protect South Korea in the event of a North Korean attack.
The Moon government also opposed developing nuclear weapons for two main reasons: It could give a justifiable pretext for North Korea’s nuclear missile developments and it could help North Korea to be recognized as a legitimate nuclear state by the international community. These are the main rationales behind Moon’s peace process centered on “dialogue” for the past five years.
However, South Koreans believe that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons. Popular support in South Korea for developing a domestic nuclear weapons program is likely to grow in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, considering how “nuclear-free” Ukraine has been attacked by Russia.
Before Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, it was one of the most powerful nuclear states. It had the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, which was inherited from the collapsed Soviet Union. However, while Ukraine upheld its commitment to denuclearize, other parties did not honor the security guarantees given to Ukraine in return.
Some have said that if Ukraine did not relinquish its nuclear arsenal, Putin could not make such a bold move and provoke a war in Ukraine. This could reinforce Pyongyang’s belief that its nuclear capabilities are the only way to ensure the country’s survival.
There is another factor that might lead Pyongyang to solidify its stance on its nuclear weapon. U.S. President Joe Biden has sent a clear message that he will not deploy any troops in Ukraine, as it could provoke a World War III between nuclear-armed states. North Korea might be learning the lesson that nuclear weapons will provide sufficient cover to its aggression, as the U.S. and other states will be deterred from counterattacks.
While most countries have condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China and North Korea have backed up Moscow’s decision, saying that the U.S. is the one who made Russia invade Ukraine by leading the countries near the border with Russia to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). With that in mind, if the U.S. fails to prevent Russia’s control over Ukraine, North Korea will not be interested in negotiating with the U.S. for denuclearization again and will seek to build stronger ties with China and Russia to weaken the U.S. leverage in the region.
North Korea-U.S. nuclear talks have been stalled since the failed Hanoi summit in 2019. North Korea has made clear that it will only consider coming back to the negotiating table once the U.S. makes concessions first. The concessions North Korea has demanded include lifting crippling sanctions, withdrawing U.S. troops from the South’s soil and permanently halting the joint South Korea-U.S. military drills.
Since the Biden administration finished reviewing its North Korea policy in April 2021, Washington has made clear that it will take a “practical” and “calibrated” approach on North Korea issues. The administration has insisted that this is not an updated version of the “strategic patience” approach that was adopted under the former Obama administration.
Considering the North’s record-high missile tests in January and the publicly disclosed results of its policy review on nuclear talks and inter-Korean summits discussed in the Fourth Plenary Meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s eight Central Committee last year, however, Washington’s offer to sit down with Pyongyang “anytime, anywhere, with no preconditions” will not be able to make a breakthrough for a while.
North Korea will unlikely give room for Washington to demonstrate the difference between Obama and Biden’s policy on North Korea. Moon’s successor – either Lee or Yoon – would inevitably need to prioritize developing self-defense capabilities. Closely coordinating with the U.S., the future South Korean president would need to strengthen the country’s asymmetric warfare capabilities to effectively deter the North’s attack on the South. That will mean completing South Korea’s Air and Missile Defense system as well as pursuing submarine-launched ballistic missiles