After years of relative calm on the Korean peninsula, tensions have recently flared up between the two Koreas, with each side firing missiles at the other in an effort to assert superiority.
Since the Korean War ended in a truce in 1953 rather than a peace treaty, tensions have simmered between North and South Korea. With this armistice, the two Koreas are still technically at war, and the Demilitarized Zone, a 250-kilometer buffer zone between them, continues to be the most heavily fortified international border in the world.
This latest escalation coincides with an impasse in the nuclear talks with the United States, which have been in place since the Hanoi summit in 2019 and have made no headway.
I- Indicators of Escalation
This year, North Korea has increased the frequency and intensity of its missile tests. For instance, it tested advanced weapons, hypersonic missiles, and intercontinental ballistic missiles, the most recent of which was the Hwasong-17 missile on 18 November, which fell within Japan’s exclusive territorial waters and had a length of about 25 meters. Hwasong-17 is reportedly the world’s largest road-launched ballistic missile and is thought to be capable of striking US bases on Guam or in the US interior. These missile tests have fueled speculation that Pyongyang is planning its seventh nuclear test, which naturally concerns the United States and its allies. The situation on the Korean Peninsula is becoming more precarious as North Korea bolsters its ballistic missile and nuclear weapon capabilities.
Meanwhile, the military exercises that the United States is carrying out with South Korea, either independently or in conjunction with Japan, have been ramping up. Pyongyang’s response to US-South Korean exercises by launching short- and medium-range ballistic missiles prompted the two countries to respond by launching short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles toward the East Sea, also known as the “Sea of Japan”, raising tensions to their highest level since Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test in 2017.
This situation is further complicated by the fact that Pyongyang is conducting exercises involving the actual use of tactical nuclear weapons and by South Korea’s efforts to ensure protection against these threats, whether through the United States or possibly by seeking to acquire nuclear weapons as well in the future. The South Korean army claims that this is the first time since the division of Korea and the Korean War’s end in 1953 that a North Korean missile has come so close to South Korea’s territorial waters, raising the possibility of an airstrike and compelling Ulleungdo Island’s residents to seek refuge underground.
As a result of Pyongyang continuing its unheard-of pace and variety of ballistic missile launches this year and amid concerns that it may be about to resume nuclear bomb tests that had been halted since 2017, the Group of Seven called for the imposition of stricter UN sanctions against North Korea and reiterated the need for North Korea to have its nuclear program verifiably destroyed, stating that the isolated country “cannot and will never have the status of a nuclear weapon state.”
The United States, for its part, said it was putting in place new sanctions that included three important North Korean organizations and members of the ruling Workers’ Party, all were already on the European Union’s list of sanctions last April for involvement in the country’s weapons development program. Seoul also declared the imposition of sanctions against seven institutions and eight individuals it believed to be connected to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development programs. After receiving new sanctions for its missile tests, North Korea has warned that it would need to take a “stronger and certain reaction”
II- Motives for Escalation
Pyongyang’s recent missile escalation can be understood in light of a host of factors, including in particular:
Adopting Reaction Policy: This escalation was a direct reaction to the larger-than-ever joint exercises between South Korea and the United States, which included firing short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles and air-launched munitions at fictitious targets at sea. This escalation might also have been prompted by the US redeploying the nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan in the waters off the Korean Peninsula to thwart North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, as well as the US deploying the THAAD missile defense system in the area. Additionally, on September 29, US Vice President Kamala Harris visited Seoul and sharply criticized North Korea, calling it a country with a “brutal dictatorship, an illegal arms program, and rampant human rights violations”, underscoring her country’s unwavering commitment to defending South Korea against its northern neighbor. Pyongyang, for its part, views all of these actions as provocative and a danger to regional stability.
Increasing Deterrence: As Washington and Seoul work to develop strategic deterrence capabilities and demonstrate their willingness to launch preemptive strikes on missile launch sites, command and control facilities, and other targets in North Korea if necessary, Pyongyang is attempting to demonstrate its capacity to take preventive or preemptive strikes to repel any potential attack against it. According to the country’s new nuclear doctrine, which was unveiled in September, nuclear strikes will be launched automatically against enemies if the government’s ability to command and control its nuclear forces is ever jeopardized. Pyongyang hopes that such extensive tests will cause Washington and Seoul to reconsider targeting the country’s leadership, particularly after US and South Korean officials have repeatedly warned over the past weeks that North Korea is preparing to conduct a nuclear test “at any time” and pledged an unprecedented retaliatory response and called on China — North Korea’s closest ally — to convince Pyongyang to refrain from conducting such tests and to advance the dialoguing process.
These missile tests are further evidence that Kim Jong-un is making progress on his five-year military plan, first announced at the Eighth Workers’ Party Congress in January 2021, and aims at developing a variety of new weapons, including smaller nuclear bombs and short-range missiles to carry them, as well as training for using them.
Cementing the Regime’s Domestic Legitimacy: President Kim Jong-un is attempting to increase internal popular support for the ruling regime through this escalation, especially in light of the economic crisis the country is currently experiencing, which is thought to be the worst in more than 25 years, and the effects of Covid-19, as well as the slowdown in industrial production and the failure to address environmental issues. Furthermore, President Kim wants to reassure the populace that their country will not capitulate to external pressures while reminding them that their country is targeted and surrounded by hostile neighbors, especially in light of recent attempts by external powers to penetrate the domestic territory and his country’s success in controlling information warfare, which will allow it to unite the home front. In addition, issuing a barrage of threats against the United States will help President Kim Jong-un gain the respect of his people as a capable leader.
Trying to Construct a New Negotiation Mechanism: North Korea is using brinkmanship and escalation techniques to put pressure on the United States to resume talks and negotiations, but on its own terms. This is done in accordance with a new formula based on acknowledging that North Korea has become a de facto nuclear power and ending US policies that Pyongyang views as hostile, such as suspending joint military exercises with South Korea and Japan or easing economic sanctions in exchange for backing down from nuclear escalation rather than giving up its nuclear weapons.
Testing the New South Korea Leadership: Pyongyang hopes to gauge Seoul’s new conservative leadership, led by Yoon Suk-yeol, and its firmness in dealing with threats from the northern neighbor through this escalation, especially given that it has a more stringent policy towards North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests than previous administrations, as evidenced by its designation as an “enemy”, with all the repercussions that could follow such a description, including national or international action, as well as preparations made in conjunction with other countries and the United States. Furthermore, South Korea reactivated the “kill chain” strategy, which was first implemented in 2010 to counter the North Korean nuclear threat. This strategy entails launching preventive strikes against North Korea in the event of an imminent military assault.
Capitalizing on International System Transformations:
The North Korean escalation is linked to changes in the international system. In a speech in September, President Kim Jong-un indicated that “the change from a unipolar world advocated by the U.S. into a multipolar world is being accelerated significantly”. Consequently, the Pyongyang regime is attempting to portray itself as a significant player in the new global balances by evangelizing about the emergence of his country as a major nuclear power and the return of the North Korea file to the global spotlight after it had decreased relative to other files, the most significant of which were the Russian-Ukrainian war and the disputes with China over Taiwan. In addition, Pyongyang is attempting to capitalize on the rivalries and disagreements among the major powers by fostering closer ties with its allies in the Sino-Russian camp in an effort to evade the Western sanctions that are still in place on the one hand, and to highlight a multipolar world and the end of the era of unilateral US hegemony on the other.
Lessons from the Russia-Ukraine War:
President Kim Jong-un appears to have learned from the Russia-Ukraine War’s lessons about the strategic importance of nuclear weapons, their viability as a deterrent, and the feasibility of the security guarantees as one of the conditions for giving them up. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Pyongyang has become more aware of the value of nuclear weapons. Moscow’s threat to use nuclear weapons to dissuade the United States and other Western powers from intervening to support Ukraine once again raised the specter of a nuclear threat. Additionally, Pyongyang’s decision to concentrate on accelerating its weapons development and showcasing its proactive strength and capabilities to achieve greater deterrence has probably been reinforced by the United States’ caution against direct involvement in the war in Ukraine as well as Ukraine’s decision in 1994 to hand over the country’s remaining nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees from the United States and Russia.
III- Denotations of Escalation
Given the aforementioned motivations, it can be argued that Pyongyang’s recent missile escalation conveys a number of messages, chiefly the following:
– Unwavering Support for Full Nuclear Armament and the Indispensability of the Nuclear Arsenal: Pyongyang is attempting to send the message that it possesses both nuclear weapons and a deterrent force against ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. As such, any military action by the United States or South Korea there will be met with a severe and violent response by North Korea. North Korea contends that giving up its nuclear weapons, as Washington demands, is impossible, and that the United States must recognize it as a nuclear power. If there is a chance that North Korea and South Korea could hold talks, it would be contingent upon the US ending its hostile policies, which would include halting joint military drills with Seoul and Tokyo, easing economic sanctions, and offering security guarantees. In exchange, North Korea will refrain from using its nuclear arsenal in a more restrained manner as opposed to completely giving them up.
Sanctions Don’t Change Policies: North Korea continued to advance in developing its nuclear and missile programs despite the repeated sanctions imposed on it as a result of previous missile and nuclear tests, as well as ongoing US pressure on allies to freeze their relations with North Korea in order to isolate the Kim Jong-un regime and stop the flow of money that the regime uses to finance its nuclear and missile programs and persuade it to change its policy.
Rejecting the Double Standard Policy: When it comes to self-defense and provocations from Seoul and Washington, North Korea does not accept double standards. Although many in Seoul and Washington consider North Korea’s military drills, especially its missile tests, to be offensive and provocative, they see their countries’ deployment of strategic assets and any increase in the frequency and intensity of joint military drills and training as defense-justifiable. Furthermore, despite North Korea’s repeated requests for the US to end its “hostile” policies that endanger the country’s survival and obstruct its citizens’ right to development, the US maintains that it has no hostile intentions toward North Korea. This unilateralism, Pyongyang claims, along with Washington’s lack of strategic sympathy and disregard for North Korea’s primary security concerns, is the primary reason for the failure of US policies on North Korea. Therefore, if both parties are serious about carrying on the dialogue, they must develop a shared understanding of North Korea.
Search for Alternative Options: There is a need to implement new policies and measures with regard to North Korea, especially in light of the infeasibility of the US “strategic patience” policy and sanctions. The continued use of the same policies shows that regional and international powers have limited options for dealing with Pyongyang, especially given the low likelihood that it will change its behavior. However, it is clear that the Biden administration is taking a new approach to North Korea that is distinct from former President Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” policy, in which Washington employs a two-pronged strategy consisting of “carrots” (unconditional dialogue) and “sticks” (expanding joint military exercises with South Korea and Japan and imposing more sanctions).
IV- A Look Into The Future
Using the following scenarios, it is possible to forecast how the recent developments on the Korean Peninsula will pan out:
Scenario One: Moving toward greater mutual escalation, including the continuation of missile tests, improved US-South Korean and Japan-joint intelligence operations, the imposition of new economic sanctions, and ongoing international condemnations of Pyongyang. Perhaps the most recent missile test, which flew over Japanese territory, is proof that North Korea is on a clear path to escalation. The longer this conflict continues, the more time Pyongyang will have to improve its capabilities. Washington’s insistence on “unconditional dialogue”, its accusation that North Korea is giving Russia military support, and the escalating crisis of confidence between North and South Korea may all serve to fuel this escalation. Unlike his predecessor, who was eager to calm down even if North Korea adopted escalation, the current president of South Korea is taking a tough stance with North Korea. Furthermore, the strained US relations with Russia and China will limit their ability to collaborate with Washington to counter North Korean threats. In addition, Washington and Seoul have continued to use the tried-and-true two-pronged strategy to counter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, stepping up military preparations and making offers for dialogue.
Scenario Two: Moving toward relative pacification through the United States making diplomatic moves, extending goodwill gestures to North Korea, and objectively re-assessing its basic demands in an effort to calm the situation. Mutual escalation does not, however, rule out negotiation. The prospect of negotiation is still open despite everything that has been done and said. However, achieving any success in this scenario depends on Washington and Seoul taking a more realistic stance towards North Korea, accepting it as a “normal” country in the region and even getting used to it as a de facto nuclear state in exchange for its complete abandonment of its nuclear program and other armament programs. So, rather than being a prerequisite for negotiation, nuclear disarmament becomes a goal. The United States should also reevaluate its fundamental demands by offering security assurances, halting joint military drills and training, loosening economic sanctions, refraining from deploying strategic weapons, and disengaging negotiations from human rights. Additionally, it should adopt a declaration to end the war and transform the armistice agreement into a peace agreement.
Nonetheless, the realization of this scenario is relatively improbable at the moment, given that all the involved parties appear to be more interested in deterrence than in diplomacy, let alone the United States’ commitment to “unconditional dialogue”, which Pyongyang explicitly rejects. Unlike China and the Taiwan file, which the US administration sees as a priority, the North Korea issue is not currently seen as such by the current US administration, and its main goal is to maintain the status quo on the Korean Peninsula. Additionally, a reconciliation with Pyongyang would also strip the US of the justification for its heavy military presence in the area at a time when it is attempting to compel a return to Asia. Hence, the first scenario turns out to be the most likely to occur because all the elements are in place for a series of reciprocal escalatory actions. Pyongyang will therefore continue on its current course by finalizing the preparations for its seventh nuclear test, creating more advanced missile programs, and displaying more advanced nuclear weapons over the coming years.
In short, given the current realities, it is reasonable to expect that the escalation on the Korean peninsula will continue, albeit at varying intensities. As a result, this escalation will not be the last and the resulting crisis is merely a transient one, similar to the previous one, especially when we consider that Pyongyang is well-known for its “brinkmanship” policy and is well aware that an attack on Washington or Seoul will provoke a response that could threaten the regime’s survival and that China’s entry into a war against its trading partners is of low probability.
However, the likelihood of an all-out war erupting in the region due to miscalculations rather than a deliberate decision remains, albeit tenuous. The most important question is whether Washington (the main player in the region controlling the rules of the game) has the political will to address this situation, especially since South Korea’s plan does not address North Korea’s security concerns or its demands for sanctions relief, both of which are largely in the hands of the US.