Deepening Tensions on the Korean Peninsula Demand New Thinking in Washington
by Mel Gurtov
The Mounting Danger
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have reached a new level of intensity. North Korea’s foreign ministry issued a statement Feb. 17 in anticipation of another round of US-South Korean military exercises, warning that these “preparations for an aggressive war . . . will face unprecedentedly persistent and strong counteractions.”
The next day, Japanese media reported that a North Korean ICBM had been launched and landed in waters off the northern island of Hokkaido. It is the latest ICBM test—the previous one was last November—and the missile is said to be capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads.
This latest test was accompanied by still others that demonstrate North Korea’s advances in long-range missiles: a test of a solid-fuel rocket and four cruise missiles. North Korea is on a record-setting pace for ballistic missile tests—over seventy last year—and may soon test a nuclear device for a seventh time and perhaps a tactical nuclear weapon for the first time.
South Korea and the US are about to conduct the largest joint field exercise in five years—a combined air drill that starts with B1-B nuclear-capable strategic bombers. The two armies also are reportedly working on a nuclear response that would, they hope, deter any use of a nuclear weapon by Pyongyang.
Resuming a debate in South Korea that goes back about 50 years, President Yoon Suk-Yeol has talked publicly about possessing nuclear weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons. That option would be in line with a preemptive counterstrike capability, which gets increased funding in the latest Republic of Korea (ROK) military budget.
Yoon says South Korea could produce a nuclear weapon “pretty quickly, given our scientific and technological capabilities.” Little doubt about that; South Korea has a highly advanced civilian nuclear energy program that could produce enough fuel for bombs in perhaps a few years. Yoon has since backtracked on the idea, though a strong majority of South Koreans—more than three to one—supports acquiring nuclear weapons, mainly to deter China and North Korea but also out of reduced confidence in the American umbrella.
Building a credible nuclear deterrent would require an extraordinary investment, however, with deleterious consequences for South Korea’s economy and society. It would also mean overcoming longstanding US objections, risking a crisis in Korea-US relations. And it would upend South Korea’s commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, as well as a 1991 agreement with North Korea not to acquire or produce a nuclear weapon.
A South Korean bomb would send North Korea two wrong messages: first, that the longstanding search for common ground under liberal presidents is over; second, that regime change by nuclear attack is now one of Seoul’s options. According to an official ROK strategy paper, “North Korea doesn’t give up its nukes and is persistently posing military threats to us, so the North Korean government and military… are our enemy.”
A pathway to tension reduction, much less peace, does not seem to exist. In fact, according to Siegfried Hecker, perhaps the leading authority on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Kim Jong Un has “given up” on diplomacy with the US.
That puts the onus for strategic stability on the Korean peninsula on the nuclear weapons of both sides for deterrence. But mutual deterrence does not automatically prevent war.
The logic of deterrence rests on rational, coolheaded thinking, but in a crisis such logic may not prevail on one or both sides. Miscalculations, misperceptions, and accidents are always possible; there have been several clashes between the two Koreas that posed the danger of escalation.
Moreover, continuing to add more weapons and military exercises to strengthen deterrence, as some US analysts urge, could have the opposite effect. In the fog of war all bets are off, as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 showed. On that occasion a US-Soviet nuclear confrontation was narrowly avoided, but as one of the participants in the Kennedy administration’s decision-making circle later said, we were lucky.
Luck is not something to depend on when nuclear weapons are involved. We have to get back to diplomatic engagement with North Korea. It is the only way to break the cycle of mutual threats. But diplomacy has to be creative, and that requires new thinking in Washington most of all.
The US and ROK cannot continue to rely on sanctions to bring Kim Jong Un to the table. Nor can they continue to presume that the North Koreans will back away in the face of awesome displays of firepower by the US and its allies. Nor, finally, can they expect North Korea to denuclearize, least of all as a precondition for talking. None of these approaches has been successful; quite the reverse.
The US and its partners need a negotiating strategy based on incentives and confidence-building steps if we are to avoid a fatal incident or a preemptive move by North Korea in response to perceived threats. The Biden administration is committed to negotiating without preconditions, but it needs to do more.
As Hecker observes, opportunities to reengage North Korea may reemerge, and when they do, the US should not commit the past error of walking away, leading the North to add to its nuclear and missile forces, all the while ignoring sanctions and criticisms of its horrendous human rights record.
Ideas for Reengaging
A Stimson Center webcast February 21 brought out a few sound ideas.
First, the US should state its desire for normal relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).
Second, the US and its partners should propose reducing sanctions on the North, step by step with tension reducing steps by the DPRK such as a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, and international monitoring of its nuclear facilities.
Third, the US and ROK should abandon joint military exercises in favor of other, less visible and provocative training drills.
To those ideas, I would add two others: a shift in US policy on China, away from confrontation and toward engagement; and a proposal to both Koreas to ban production and deployment of tactical nuclear weapons.
As to the first, reducing tensions with China is the only way to gain its cooperation in a new US policy on North Korea. Otherwise, expect that the dual-enemies situation the US now faces with China and Russia will evolve, if it hasn’t already, into a joint Beijing-Moscow strategy that turns a blind eye to North Korea’s ongoing nuclear and missile programs as well as supports North Korea’s reported military aid to Russia.
The other idea, a tactical nuclear weapons ban, would aim to head off what amounts to a greater challenge than ICBMs to deterrence.
Down the line, I would not exclude the US taking additional steps with North Korea, subject to the North’s fulfillment of its agreements and willingness to reduce its nuclear weapon inventory: diplomatic recognition of the DPRK, and acceptance of the DPRK as a nuclear-weapon state, as Jeffrey Lewis has argued.
All these steps would require close consultations with South Korea and Japan. They would need reassurances about US extended deterrence, even as the US moves away from building further on it. The new game in town should be engagement of North Korea through reduced reliance on threat and greater reliance on confidence building and arms control.