Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have continued to rise recently, with the U.S. and DPRK blaming each other. The United States military has claimed since the beginning of the year that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will conduct its seventh nuclear test at any time, and has acted as if this a fait accompli.
At the end of August 2022, for the first time in five years, the U.S. and the Republic of Korea conducted joint military exercises, including operations called “Eulji Freedom Shield” and the “Storm of Vigilance.” Together with Japan, they have staged trilateral anti-submarine exercises at significant scale. A U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the B-1B strategic bomber and other military assets have come to the region for the first time in more than five years.
Recently, the top brass of U.S. and ROK stated that they would take unprecedented measures against a possible nuclear test by the DPRK. On the sidelines of the G20 summit, the U.S., Japan and ROK announced in their first joint statement that they would work together to strengthen their deterrence capabilities against the DPRK. The nuclear issue was also on the agenda of the China-U.S. summit in Bali, Indonesia, which attracted worldwide attention.
The DPRK quickly responded with a nuclear policy decree that significantly lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. It conducted intensive missile tests and air drills, staged an air combat show of force against ROK military aircraft along the border and sent missiles flying over Japan and splashing down south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) for the first time.
The DPRK nuclear issue has gradually entered a tense cycle since the beginning of the year and has worsened recently. The motives behind which are worth exploring.
First of all, the U.S. lacks motivation to resolve the issue and is clearly taking advantage of it. After the breakdown of the Hanoi summit in 2019, the Trump administration and the subsequent Biden administration had no intention of wasting resources on the DPRK nuclear issue but rather brought allies together to exert pressure and impose sanctions on the DPRK. They responded to the DPRK missile test launches in a low-profile manner to avoid an expansion that would only make things worse and actually exercised a sort of veiled “strategic patience.”
With the U.S. gaining a stage advantage recently in Ukraine and the Democratic Party doing well in the midterm elections, the Biden administration’s tone on the DPRK nuclear issue has heightened significantly. However, U.S. policy is not focused on resolving that issue, but only on hyping the issue to engage with Japan and the ROK and increase the siege against China.
Recent U.S.-ROK and U.S.-Japan-ROK military cooperation has advanced significantly, and the U.S. military investment in Northeast Asia has increased — far beyond what is needed to deal with the DPRK nuclear issue — all of which is apparently targeted against China. On the sidelines of the G20 summit, the U.S.-Japan-ROK summit, which has always emphasized that it is solely directed at the DPRK, issued its first joint statement mentioning Taiwan, the South China Sea, economic security and the Indo-Pacific order at length and targeting China far more than the DPRK.
U.S. President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and other senior U.S. officials have repeatedly pressured China, saying that the U.S. will expand its military deployment in Northeast Asia if the DPRK continues to upgrade its nuclear missile capabilities. It is foreseeable — using the excuse of the DPRK nuclear issue — that the U.S.-ROK and U.S.-ROK-Japan joint military exercises will continue to expand. The U.S. could increase its deployment of strategic assets in Northeast Asia, expanding and extending deterrence and deploying additional SAD missile defense systems.
On the DPRK nuclear issue, the U.S., as the overwhelmingly dominant party, does not address fundamental issues such as the peace mechanism or security guarantees on the peninsula but simply chooses high-handed means against the DPRK, which is tantamount to trying to put out fire by adding more firewood. This will further stimulate the DPRK to accelerate its nuclear capabilities and missile development.
Second, the intensification of the DPRK nuclear crisis is related to the DPRK’s own logic. Pyongyang acknowledges the enormous economic difficulties it is currently enduring as a result of the comprehensive sanctions and the isolation it has encountered. The significant increase in the U.S.-ROK-Japan military presence has also exacerbated security pressures on the DPRK. As the existing stalemate will only become more passive in the long run, the DPRK urgently needs to take up offense as defense and seek an asymmetric balance against the U.S.-ROK alliance by improving its strike capabilities and lowering the threshold for nuclear use to force all parties to face up to its demands and get rid of the structural dilemma of increasing nuclear weapons and growing passivity in the competition for composite national strength.
Prospects for the DPRK’s continued upgrading of its nuclear missile capabilities are likely to be threefold:
First is to invite more severe international sanctions. Multiple sanction resolutions by the UN Security Council have made clear that continued DPRK nuclear development will lead to an escalation of sanctions, but the current state of U.S. relations with Russia and China could affect this prospect.
Second is to force the United States and the ROK to compromise by significantly increasing the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities. This prospect is unlikely given the current policy of the Biden administration and the conservative ROK government.
Another angle is stimulating disagreement between big powers over the nuclear issue and exacerbate a new cold war in Northeast Asia — that is, a return to the Cold War-era status of China, Russia and the DPRK versus the United States, Japan and the ROK. This prospect might help the DPRK break out of its long post-Cold War passive isolation with respect to the nuclear issue. This is the logic behind the continued DPRK support for Russia in the war in Ukraine.
With the U.S. recently accusing the DPRK of exporting weapons to Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin criticizing the ROK for supplying weapons to Ukraine, the possibility of the two sides of the peninsula becoming involved in a new cold war is obvious. The DPRK clearly expects the third prospect.
Third, the attitude of the ROK and Japan has also contributed to the escalation of the DPRK nuclear issue. Japan, like the United States, uses the DPRK nuclear issue as part of a strategy to contain China, and its position goes without saying. As an important party to the peninsula issue, subtle adjustments in the ROK position is interesting.
The Moon Jae-in administration said peace on the Korean Peninsula is important and emphasized the autonomy of both sides. It didn’t want the peninsula to become a frontier for great-power competition. Thus it was conciliatory toward the north and wanted to avoid provoking it.
But the Yoon Seok-yeol administration has made the U.S.-ROK alliance the basis of its foreign policy, emphasizing containment of the DPRK and constantly pushing for deeper security cooperation in the U.S.-ROK alliance and greater extended deterrence against the north. In fact, with its conventional weapons advantage, combined with extended U.S. deterrence, the Republic of Korea has obtained a dominant position against the DPRK. As the ROK continues to increase this advantage, the DPRK will undoubtedly have to continue to upgrade its nuclear weapons to protect itself.
The current positions of the parties involved in the DPRK nuclear issue show that they all have a need to exploit it, even forming a special tacit agreement. So an escalation of the nuclear crisis is inevitable.
As with all previous nuclear crises, the parties involved appear to be at war but are actually holding their heads above water and do not want a real conflict to occur. With the recent calls by the U.S. and ROK for preemptive strikes against the DPRK, however, and the DPRK’s drastic lowering of the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons (“nuclear preemption”), the risk of a miscalculation by both sides leading to a conflict or even a nuclear war is on the rise.
The recent air-to-air combat standoff on the border between the DPRK and ROK, as well as the DPRK’s missile launches, which triggered air defense alerts in parts of Japan and the ROK, demonstrate that this risk is real. In the event of a conflict on the peninsula, this would clearly not be in the interests of all parties. And even if the parties manage to avoid conflict, the intensification of a new cold war in Northeast Asia, the rising risk of nuclear proliferation and the involvement of both sides of the peninsula in a great-power game do not bode well.