April 29, 2022
SEOUL – There is no doubt that North Korea is extremely intractable for its obsession with building up military forces and advancing lethal weapons. But its tactics are not so unpredictable. After all, it has consistently repeated its old playbook of saber-rattling in hopes of reaping rewards in various forms.
Pyongyang has been test-firing a series of ballistic and strategic missiles that appear increasingly sophisticated in a way that deepens concerns about the security on the Korean Peninsula. Experts at home and abroad already expressed worries that the regime would eventually go a step further with its not-so-secretive nuclear card.
On Monday, such concern about Pyongyang’s reckless move turned out to be accurate. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, attending a military parade in Pyongyang, pledged to develop nuclear-armed forces “at the fastest possible speed,” and suggested that North Korea could launch a “preemptive nuclear strike.”
Describing nuclear-armed forces as a symbol of national pride and the foundation of the regime’s military might, Kim said North Korea will “take more proactive measures” in preparation for the turbulent political and military situation.
Of course, Kim himself is responsible for the bulk of geopolitical turbulence that is sending alarm to South Korea, the United States and Japan, among others. Regardless of his logical flaw, however, his choice of expressions, especially a “preemptive nuclear strike,” cannot be downplayed or ignored.
Given the tone and content of Kim’s latest speech — laced with unabashed threats toward South Korea and the US — the hostile North Korean leader is likely to orchestrate the seventh nuclear test or the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile shortly before or right after May 10 when Yoon Suk-yeol is scheduled to take office.
For all the serious threats, President Moon Jae-in avoided talking about his view on Kim’s latest move in an interview with a local media on Tuesday. “I will not give an assessment,” Moon said. “This is not an appropriate moment to assess (his own North Korea policy).”
Asked about North Korea’s heightened threats that virtually jeopardized his North Korea policy, Moon claimed that the peninsula has maintained peace for the past five years thanks to his focus on peace — an argument that is inviting a fresh wave of criticism and counterarguments.
Moon has been consistently pursuing a peace-centered inter-Korean policy. His recent campaign for an end-of-war declaration illustrates his unwavering belief that such policy would bring North Korea to the nuclear negotiations table.
But it is questionable whether Moon’s policy has brought about any tangible results. Talks for denuclearization have stalled since the 2019 Hanoi summit between the US and North Korea ended without an agreement, and experts in Seoul said Moon’s end-of-war declaration push is a symbolic gesture to score his personal achievement toward the end of his term.
Furthermore, Moon is accused of failing to raise his voice against North Korea’s escalating threats, including a preemptive strike. Nor did Cheong Wa Dae issue an official statement condemning Kim’s speech on nuclear armed forces.
The task, unfortunately, is being handed over to the incoming President Yoon Suk-yeol, who is set to meet with US President Joe Biden in Seoul on May 21. The summit will offer Yoon a chance to explore various options for a new North Korea policy.
During his election campaign, Yoon promised to ask the US to redeploy nuclear weapons to South Korea. He also expressed his view in favor of additional deployments of the US‘ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system. Yoon recently said he will positively review joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, a US-led security partnership that includes Australia, Japan and India.
Given that geopolitical tensions are now spiking to a precarious level, Yoon should carefully and objectively weigh various elements during the summit before finalizing his policy toward North Korea.