In the early morning hours on Thursday, Japan went on alert — with citizens in the northern prefectures urged to seek shelter, and trains halted — after North Korea fired three missiles toward the sea, including one suspected intercontinental ballistic missile, according to reports.
The past month has seen a rapid escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula: North Korea conducting repeated military provocations, while joint U.S.-South Korea-Japan military drills have continued in the Sea of Japan since early October. Last week, the two Koreas went as far as exchanging warning shots at sea.
Pyongyang said Tuesday that the U.S.-led drills “can no longer be tolerated” and subsequently launched more than two dozen missiles on Wednesday, with o-ne falling near South Ko-rean waters “for the first ti-me since the end of the 19-50-53 Korean War,” accor-ding to the Washington Post.
This recent escalation began soon after the USS Ronald Reagan docked in South Korea’s southern city of Busan on September 23. Two days later, North Korea responded by conducting the first of what would become a long and ongoing series of military provocations.
U.S.-led joint military drills with South Korea are nothing new and the North Koreans usually just release statements criticizing joint exercises but refrain from conducting actual missile tests. But Pyongyang’s res-ponse this time around is n-oteworthy given its resolute and highly emboldened posture.
It’s also notable that several of the North Korean tests took place at night, given the various technical complexities. North Korea showed that it could fire missiles at all times of day and from many different locations, including from an underwater silo in a re-servoir. Regarding the latter, it was later revealed th-at the South Korean milita-ry had failed to accurately detect from where this missile was launched and could only track its trajectory wh-en it was already in the air.
But it’s not just missile tests. North Korea has been showing the world that its military capabilities stretch beyond its rockets and missiles. The North has fired hundreds of artillery rounds in recent weeks, with some even falling in maritime buffer zones. North Korean fighter jets are also holding drills near South Korean airspace.
These demonstrations c-ome after North Korean le-ader Kim Jong Un annou-nced a new law on the use of the country’s nuclear we-apons in September. In a speech, he declared that de-fining the country’s nuclear policy in law had “made o-ur state’s status as a nuclear weapon state irreversible.”
The law details under w-hat conditions nuclear wea-pons could be used. Acco-rding to the law, if the Nor-th Korean leader were to s-uffer an accident, “a nucl-ear strike shall be launched automatically and immediately to destroy hostile fo-rces.”
The measure also has ve-ry real implications for fut-ure diplomacy with Pyong-yang, as Kim Jong Un said his country would never ag-ain engage in talks prem-ised on its denuclearization. “There will never be such a thing as our abandonment of the nuclear weapons or denuclearization first, nor will there be any negotiations to this end or bargaining chip in these processes,” Kim said in September.
With its seemingly more confident and emboldened attitude, North Korea may think that the United States is distracted by various ot-her issues, including the w-ar in Ukraine, its economic rivalry with China, and do-mestic political issues. All the while, the Biden administration has yet to introd-uce a new strategy for eng-aging with North Korea.
So while Washington se-ems content to hold on to “strategic patience,” Pyongyang has been growing its arsenal and has ga-ined more support from bo-th Russia and China, which both vetoed U.S. calls for additional UN Security Co-uncil-level sanctions agai-nst North Korea back in May.
And sanctions have not brought any resolution to the North Korea issue. Yet the United States continues to adhere to its same old st-rategies, like restarting jo-int military drills in resp-onse to North Korean prov-ocations.
Although it may be difficult for many in Washi-ngton to accept, North Kor-ea has already become a n-uclear weapons state and it is not going to give them up in exchange for mere wo-rds. Kim seems unimpre-ssed with the U.S. and South Korean position of “keeping the door to dialogue open.”
Simply stating “we are open to dialogue” does no-thing to show Pyongyang that talks would turn out any differently from Kim’s meetings with President T-rump in Hanoi. The Biden administration must make major changes in its appr-oach clear. This is not capitulating to North Korean provocations; it’s conducting responsible policy as the world’s biggest superpower to ensure safety and security in East Asia and beyond. If the United States really believes it’s the world’s leading power, it must act like it.
The best option for now is to find ways to prevent North Korea from further expanding and developing its weapons programs thro-ugh dialogue premised on mutual respect and a give-and-take approach.
Although North Korea may someday choose to gi-ve up its nuclear weapons, the current focus should be on creating an environment that can set the foundation for this potential eventuality. The United States must aim for a long-term productive relationship with North Korea, build lasting trust, and always keep the goal of ending the Korean War in mind in order to finally make peace on the Korean Peninsula a real possibility.
A closer relationship between Washington and Pyongyang means that its less likely North Korea will use its nuclear weapons and more likely it will abandon them. There’s no doubt it’s a huge challenge, but the co-sts of continuing to ignore the issue are even greater.