Fixing the failed North Korea strategy

The paper says the problem is that South Korea and the US find it extremely difficult to get Pyongyang to give up on its playbook.


March 29, 2022

SEOUL – North Korea’s old survival playbook has gotten more sophisticated over the past few decades. The formula is rather straightforward. It develops and test-fires new missiles that could pose a threat to South Korea and its allies, particularly the United States. Once it gets rewards such as sanctions relief, it suspends its weapons program for a while. However, when a new geopolitical change is in sight the regime resumes test-firing missiles, often armed with more advanced technologies.

Seoul and Washington are fully aware of Pyongyang’s simple strategy aimed at securing its survival by orchestrating a cycle of saber-rattling and covert weapons development.

The problem is that South Korea and the US find it extremely difficult to get Pyongyang to give up on its playbook. As a result, North Korea is joyfully having a missile-test field day, now featuring an intercontinental ballistic missile.

On Thursday, North Korea test-fired an ICBM that flew from the Sunan area of its capital city Pyongyang toward the East Sea, ending a hiatus that lasted for over four years and officially breaking its self-imposed moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests that had been in place since November 2017.

The ICBM launch did not come as a total surprise, as Pyongyang had already launched 11 previous rounds of missile tests this year, showcasing a new hypersonic missile and an intermediate-range ballistic missile.

President Moon Jae-in, who has pushed for an engagement policy with Pyongyang while trying not to issue official condemnations against the regime, broke his silence and said the ICBM launch “poses a serious threat to the Korean Peninsula, the region and the international community and clearly violates UN Security Council resolutions.”

It is regrettable that Moon made the long overdue statement against North Korea’s missile tests after missing so many chances to do so in recent months. Instead of directly condemning such provocations, President Moon focused on promoting the idea of pulling off an end-of-war declaration on the Korean Peninsula, even though critics and experts alike point out that it is a problematic, if not unrealistic, initiative.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delicately timed the ICBM launch at an optimal time, when South Korea was transitioning to a new administration following the tight March 9 presidential election and the geopolitical turmoil sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

North Korea confirmed that it test-fired a new type of ICBM under the order of Kim Jong-un. The North Korean leader had vowed to enhance its nuclear deterrence capabilities and prepare for a “long-standing confrontation” with the US.

It is now a matter of time before Pyongyang would toy with both missile launches and nuclear tests, suggesting that Moon’s inter-Korean policy based on naive expectations about Pyongyang may result in heightening the geopolitical tension and helping the regime buy time to develop more destructive weapons.

The road ahead appears to be filled with a slew of potholes before South Korea and its allies jointly secure a breakthrough.

The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting and discussed the adoption of a press statement denouncing Pyongyang’s latest ICBM launch. Due to the opposition from China and Russia however, the UNSC failed to adopt a statement, even though most member states condemned the ICBM launch and expressed concerns.

US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said it is a failed strategy to remain silent in the hope that North Korea would similarly show restraint.

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol warned against North Korea over its provocative acts and called on Chinese President Xi Jinping to cooperate closely for North Korea’s denuclearization. More importantly, Yoon should strengthen the country’s alliance with the US as part of its efforts to fix the failed strategy against North Korea.

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