Tensions are rising yet again in the Korean peninsula. The massive United States-South Korean joint military exercises have once again resumed. Meanwhile, North Korea has tested more than 80 ballistic and cruise missiles so far this year. In the third week of December, North Korea test-fired a rocket from its east coast. The country denied accusations by South Korea that it had tested another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). In a statement it said that the firing of the rocket was part of its preparation to launch a military reconnaissance satellite by April.
The latest missile test happened immediately after North Korea’s announcement that it had developed a new ICBM that would be hard to detect. North Korea claimed that the latest ICBM developed by its scientists is propelled by solid fuel. (The previous three ICBMs launched by it were liquid-fuelled.) Missiles using solid fuel are easier to hide and transport. The test coincidentally took place after the Japanese government announced that it was doubling its defence budget, citing growing threats from China, Russia, and North Korea. In recent times, North Korea also fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile over northern Japan and launched a further 23 missiles, one of which crossed the maritime border with South Korea.
This year’s joint US-South Korean military exercises were the biggest in the Korean peninsula in decades. South Korea also test-fired its own missiles into the disputed maritime demarcation line between the two Koreas, to which North Korea responded by firing short-range missiles that landed in waters 60 kilometres from the South Korean city of Sokcho. North Korea said that its recent missile tests were in response to the “aggressive and provocative” US-led military exercises in South Korea. It warned that the US and South Korea would “pay the most horrible price in history” if they continued to stage military exercises in the peninsula.
North Korea has accumulated a credible nuclear and missile arsenal over the last two decades. Last year, it test-launched a nuclear-capable long-range strategic cruise missile and has been testing submarine-launched ballistic missiles since 2015.
The country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, was present along with his wife and daughter during the second ICBM test in November, the first time his daughter appeared in public. To Western commentators, it was a sign that she was next in line of succession. Japanese Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada said that the latest North Korean ICBM had a range of over 15,000 km, which means it has the capacity to hit targets anywhere in the US. According to Western military analysts, the ICBM that North Korea tested in November was a Hwasong-17. The country first launched this class of missile two years ago.
KCNA, the North Korean news agency, claimed that the Hwasong-17 launch was aimed at achieving “the most powerful and absolute deterrence”. Immediately after the ICBM launch, US F-16 and South Korean F-35 fighters flew in formation near the border in a show of strength.
US President Joe Biden discussed the situation during a four-hour meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. Both China and Russia have not vetoed the tough sanctions imposed on North Korea by the UN Security Council since 2006.
The last Security Council resolution adopted in 2017 imposed the severest sanctions, almost completely isolating the country from the international community. China, which shares a long border with North Korea and is the country’s most important trading partner, joined the rest of the international community in implementing those sanctions.
The international scenario has, however, changed a lot in the last couple of years. The US has now openly characterised China as its principal strategic competitor and is openly trying to build a military alliance against it. Russia is engaged in a de facto conflict with NATO in Ukraine, and Western governments have alleged that North Korea has been supplying weaponry to Russia after the conflict in Ukraine began. Both Russia and North Korea have denied the allegations. It is unlikely that China and Russia will henceforth support any Security Council resolution calling for additional sanctions on North Korea. The country’s economy, ravaged by decades of sanctions, was further impacted by the pandemic in the last two years.
The latest flurry of North Korean missile tests came after the US, Japan, and South Korea announced in a joint statement their determination “to work together to strengthen deterrence” against North Korea. The leaders of the three countries made the statement after their meeting during the ASEAN meet in Phnom Penh in the third week of November. The three countries pledged “to share DPRK (North Korea) missile warning data in real time to improve each country’s ability to detect and assess the threat posed by incoming missiles”. They also claimed that the steps were being taken to protect “peace and stability” in the region. The statement issued in Phnom Penh came just a day after North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Sun-hui warned that his country’s response would be “fiercer” if the three countries further enhanced their military cooperation.
While talking about peace and stability, Biden had reiterated the US commitment to defend Japan and South Korea. He said that the commitment was “ironclad and backed by the full range of capabilities, including nuclear”. North Korea naturally interpreted this statement as a threat to its security.
Relations between Koreas
Since taking office the Biden administration has not bothered to re-establish contact with the North Korean government. In South Korea, too, a new right-wing government, uninterested in detente with North Korea, is now in power. The previous President, Moon Jae-in, had briefly succeeded in getting North Korea to the negotiating table.
However, his successor, Yoon Suk-yeol, has very hawkish views on relations with the neighbour. He had campaigned on the promise that he would adopt a tough approach while dealing with the North Korean government. Among the first decisions Yoon took was to “normalise” the joint US-Korea exercises and “step up” joint military training to deter North Korea from testing more missiles and nuclear weapons.
One of the reasons why there was comparative calm in the Korean peninsula in the last couple of years was the Donald Trump administration’s decision to temporarily halt US-South Korean military exercises in the peninsula. The decision was taken in close coordination with the previous South Korean government just before three highly publicised meetings between Trump and Kim Jong-un in 2018 and in 2019. North Korea responded by suspending its missile testing for more than two years after talks with Trump began. The hope in the US and South Korea was that the move would nudge North Korea to negotiate seriously on the issue of nuclear and missile disarmament.
However, North Korea sought more concrete measures, including the lifting of sanctions and the signing of a peace treaty with the US that would formally end the Korean War.
There is only an armistice agreement that was signed by the UN, China, and North Korea at the end of the Korean War in 1953. A formal peace agreement with the US been a long-standing demand of the North Korean government. Talks with the Trump administration collapsed by the end of 2019 after the US refused to concede North Korea’s major demands.
The Biden administration announced in early 2022 that it would take “a calibrated, practical approach” to deal with North Korea. After completing 100 days in office, Biden told the US Congress that issues relating to North Korea would be addressed through “diplomacy and strong deterrence”. The Biden administration had stated in April 2021 that its policy on North Korea “would not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience”.
After the first meeting between the newly elected Biden and the South Korean president in May 2021, the two countries expressed support for the Panmunjom Declaration that was issued after the first inter-Korean summit in 2018. The Panmunjom Declaration talks about the shared goals of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and increasing inter-Korean cooperation.
But there are no signs that the Biden administration will abandon its “management through deterrence” policy any time soon. The US, keeping in view the strategic rivalry with China, apparently is of the view that maintaining and further strengthening the strong political and military relationship with South Korea is a more important priority than pursuing the goal of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
In the last six months, the US has persuaded South Korea to sink its differences with Tokyo and forge a stronger tripartite military alliance in the region. Biden administration officials have also been talking about incorporating South Korea into the Quad security alliance. The other members of the anti-China grouping are India, Australia, and Japan.
The US has a permanent military presence in South Korea. It has maintained some 30,000 troops in the country since the end of the Korean War in 1953. US missile systems, including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense batteries are deployed in the country.
Kim Jong-un recently repeated his pledge to “fight nukes with nukes” and engage in “total confrontation” if the US, South Korea, and Japan continue to threaten it.
In a speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly in September, he declared that the country would not give up its nuclear weapons as long as nuclear weapons and “imperialism” continued to exist. “We have drawn the line of no retreat regarding our nuclear weapons, so that there will no longer be any bargaining over them,” he said.
There have been reports that Pyongyang is getting ready for another nuclear test. The last one it conducted was in 2017, when it detonated a powerful thermonuclear bomb.
The UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has said that the country is ramping up production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium in order to bolster its arsenal of nuclear weapons.
- US-South Korea joint drills are the biggest in recent times.
- Japan doubled the defence budget, citing growing threats from China, Russia, and North Korea.
- North Korea fired a number of missiles, one of which crossed the maritime border with South Korea.
- North Korea has claimed its new ICBM is hard to detect.
- Joe Biden discussed the situation with Xi Jinping during the G20 summit.
- According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, North Korea is ramping up the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium.