With the entire world focused on Ukraine, North Korea launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) since 2017 on Thursday. The long-range missile, which is designed to carry nuclear weapons, should be seen as a major escalation by North Korea.
U.S. and South Korean officials had warned that such a long-range missile test was coming and the war in Ukraine presented the perfect opportunity for North Korea to make trouble, knowing that the United States and other powers would be distracted. Now that North Korea has resumed its ICBM testing, the Biden administration must be ready for a flare-up on the Korean Peninsula even as Russian President Vladimir Putin causes bloodshed and threatens nuclear war in Ukraine. This could be the sleeper crisis of 2022.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine will only redouble North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s determination to expand his nuclear arsenal. Kim knows that under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union, and he no doubt figures that if Ukraine were still a nuclear power, Russia would not have dared to attack. For Kim, Ukraine’s experience only reinforces the lessons that his fellow dictators in Iraq and Libya learned the hard way: countries that give up their nuclear weapons programs become vulnerable, and their leaders face serious risks of being overthrown and killed.
FULL STEAM AHEAD
There are multiple reasons to be concerned that North Korea will continue to carry out missile tests, a nuclear test, or other provocations in the coming year. First, the regime in Pyongyang has a history of greeting incoming South Korean presidents with threats. Yoon Suk-yeol, the conservative candidate who won the South Korean presidential election earlier this month, has already signaled that he will pursue a tougher policy toward North Korea. The last time a conservative president was elected in South Korea—Park Geun-hye—Kim conducted North Korea’s third nuclear test just weeks before her inauguration in February 2013. Progressive presidents have hardly gotten a pass: in 2017, during the first four months of Moon Jae-in’s presidency, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear weapons test (of a hydrogen bomb) and two intercontinental ballistic missile tests. (A third ICBM, capable of reaching targets in the entire United States, followed later in the year.)
This year also has symbolic resonance in North Korea: it marks Kim’s first decade in power, the 80th anniversary of the birth of his father, Kim Jong Il, and the 110th anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. The latter anniversary, on April 15, could prompt a major weapons test in North Korea. It is highly plausible, even probable, that North Korea is gearing up to test an ICBM or to launch a military satellite utilizing the same missile technology, which is banned by UN Security Council resolutions.
Even before the latest crisis, North Korea’s nuclear program was already in overdrive. Since coming to power, Kim has conducted four nuclear tests and more than 130 missile tests. Pyongyang is estimated to have up to 60 nuclear warheads and is producing enough fissile material to make half a dozen new bombs annually. Kim is now moving to place multiple warheads on a single ICBM. This capability, using what is known as a multiple independent reentry vehicle, would likely stymie limited U.S. missile defenses and enhance North Korea’s ability to strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear missiles—making North Korea one of just three countries in the world able to do so, along with China and Russia.
In the past six months, North Korea has tested a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, a train-mounted ballistic missile, a new surface-to-air defense missile system, a long-range strategic cruise missile, and multiple hypersonic missiles. Most recently, in early March, North Korea tested components of an ICBM, including one that would allow it to deliver multiple warheads from missiles that are even larger than the ICBMs that it tested in 2017. North Korea needs to continue to test and modernize its arsenal to achieve its strategic goal: securing international acceptance as a nuclear weapons power and, at the same time, building leverage for future diplomacy with the United States. Pakistan is North Korea’s model in this regard: after Pakistan’s first nuclear test in 1998, Islamabad faced U.S. and UN sanctions, but they were soon eased, and after 9/11, the United States showered Pakistan with aid.
Finally, the geopolitical environment is particularly propitious for North Korean missile tests. Russia is at odds with the West over its invasion of Ukraine. Chinese President Xi Jinping is too preoccupied with the economic and political fallout of Russia’s war—Xi is under intense pressure from both Washington and Moscow to pick a side—to be concerned with North Korea right now. In this context, neither Moscow nor Beijing is likely to agree to additional sanctions on North Korea at the UN Security Council. Both, in fact, are already relaxing the enforcement of sanctions on North Korea. This is practically an invitation for North Korea to carry out fresh provocations.
MORE OF THE SAME?
The problem is that if North Korea does raise its threat level with major weapons tests this year, the U.S. government has few good options for how to respond. North Korea’s nuclear program has bedeviled five U.S. presidents, and despite Washington employing every possible approach from summitry to threats of force, the goal of denuclearization remains as remote as ever.
This may explain why, after more than a year in office, U.S. President Joe Biden has unveiled no significant new initiatives on North Korea. The administration’s stated policy of a “calibrated, practical approach” is in between President Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” and President Donald Trump’s all-or-nothing “grand bargain,” which amounted to an acceptance of the status quo. To be fair, the Biden administration has made it clear that the United States is willing to talk to the North Koreans without any preconditions, but Pyongyang has shown little interest in further dialogue with Washington since the failure of the three Trump-Kim summits.
The only realistic option for Biden is to maintain a commitment to the denuclearization of North Korea as a long-term goal while, in the short and medium terms, pursuing a more pragmatic policy of sanctions, deterrence, and containment to limit the threat. These are not new policies, but the United States and its allies must seek to implement them with more consistency, credibility, and coordination than has previously been the case.
The coming weeks and months are the perfect opportunity for rogue states to make trouble.
Sanctions are one tool that could come in handy. The sanctions the George W. Bush administration imposed in 2005 on Macau’s Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea kept some of its cash, were one of the few steps taken by Washington that genuinely got Pyongyang’s attention. Yet only two years later, the United States agreed to release $25 million in frozen funds to spur six-party talks, and the sanctions were officially lifted in 2020. North Korea also noticed when Trump authorized the U.S. Treasury Department to block from the U.S. financial system any individual or foreign business that facilitates trade with Pyongyang. The Biden administration should expand such secondary sanctions on financial institutions that aid the Kim regime, including those in China. The administration has room to crack down further on North Korea’s financial networks under the 2019 Otto Warmbier Act (named after an American student murdered by North Korea but sent home right before his death). The law gives the president the power to sanction financial institutions that help North Korea evade UN sanctions. The United States needs to send a simple, direct message to foreign financial firms, particularly Chinese firms: they can do business with North Korea or they can do business with the United States, but they can’t do business with both. The model should be the tough sanctions that the United States imposed on Iran before reaching a deal on Tehran’s nuclear activities in 2015.
Sanctions should be eased only if North Korea takes verifiable and irreversible steps toward denuclearization. Such measures can be combined with strengthening military cooperation with allies to interdict illicit North Korean trade and weapons proliferation, expanding missile defenses around the Korean Peninsula, and beefing up military capabilities to deter North Korea.
SEOUL AND WASHINGTON, TOGETHER AGAIN
In the past, the United States and South Korea have sometimes pursued a hard line and sometimes a softer approach with North Korea, and they haven’t always been on the same page. For example, under the so-called Sunshine Policy, South Korea provided economic assistance to North Korea from 1998 to 2008. By contrast, during President George W. Bush’s first term, the United States pursued a tougher policy against North Korea—which Bush included in his “axis of evil.” More recently, despite the lack of denuclearization progress since the Trump-Kim summits, the Moon administration tried to engage with North Korea by easing sanctions and pushing for a formal end to the Korean War; for its part, the Biden administration thought such steps were premature.
Yoon will likely be in closer accord with Biden than was Moon. Yoon favors restoring the large-scale joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that were scaled back in the years since Trump’s summits with Kim. If the North were to conduct an ICBM or a nuclear test, Biden and Yoon are likely to be united in more aggressively enforcing sanctions. Yoon has also expressed support for deploying additional U.S. missile defense batteries known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, meant to defend against North Korean missiles. Finally, Biden and Yoon agree on the need for Seoul to repair relations with Tokyo in order to bolster U.S.-Japanese-South Korean trilateral coordination. The Yoon-Biden partnership should make it possible to pursue a tougher sanctions approach while also leaving an opening for dialogue if Kim is interested.
Although the West should remain resolute in the face of North Korean provocations, Seoul and Washington should not be afraid to talk with Pyongyang. If the North does decide to return to negotiations, the United States should test the waters to see if it would be possible to conclude an interim deal that would freeze the North Korean nuclear program in a verifiable manner in return for partial sanctions relief from the United States. But the deal would need to be more equitable than North Korea’s demand at the 2019 Hanoi summit for most of the sanctions to be lifted in return for only a partial nuclear shutdown. An interim deal might be unrealistic because the Kim regime has shown no indication that it would accept the kind of intrusive inspections to which Iran agreed in 2015. But it is even less realistic to imagine that a grand bargain can be struck that would result in North Korea’s complete denuclearization. If nothing else, a willingness to engage in such limited negotiations will enable Washington to win the battle of the narratives by showing the world that it is genuinely interested in peace and that the primary obstacles to an agreement can be found in Pyongyang.
It is easy to object that such steps would be more of the same. But there is a good reason why the United States and South Korea have fallen back, time after time, on this course of action: it is the least bad alternative. The model for this strategy is the Cold War, when the United States patiently pursued containment and deterrence of the Soviet threat until, after more than half a century, the Soviet Union peacefully imploded. The impoverished and illegitimate North Korean regime, too, will eventually need to transform itself or implode.
The Cold War was a lengthy undertaking that saw tensions wax and wane. The lesson of that era is that Washington should not overreact to such highs and lows but instead pursue a steady, principled policy to keep the pressure on a tyrannical regime without falling for provocations and risking a spiral into a major conflict. With presidents who see eye to eye, Washington and Seoul should be able to stick to this script more effectively than ever before.