May 4, 2023
SEOUL – South Korea and the United States should focus on rendering North Korea’s nuclear arsenal useless to gain the upper hand over North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, according to former US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.
Pyongyang’s expansion of its nuclear weapon stockpiles won’t make that big of a difference as long as the allies project the perception to Kim that the use of even one nuclear weapon will undoubtedly result in the “instant end” of his regime.
“We need to be confident in the effectiveness of our deterrence and not be panicked by these provocations. What Kim Jong-un wants is for us to be panicked and feel that there’s an issue here,” Steinberg — who started to deal with North Korean issues during the Clinton administration — said in an interview on the sidelines of the Asan Plenum 2023 in Seoul on April 25. Steinberg currently serves as dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
“This is the game they’ve been playing,” he continued.
North Korea has increased its nuclear saber-rattling against South Korea and the US. Kim urged his country to increase its nuclear arsenal exponentially and mass-produce tactical nuclear weapons able to strike within South Korean territory in his Jan. 1 speech intended to unveil his list of New Year’s resolutions for 2023.
North Korea fired a record-breaking number of missiles last year, including more than 70 ballistic missiles. According to the South Korean military, by mid-April, North Korea had already conducted 11 discrete missile launches this year, including the test-firing of a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile.
“If we respond with hysteria to every one of these provocations, then we’re playing his (Kim’s) game. And we need to not play his game. We need to play our game,” said Steinberg, who served as the US deputy secretary of state from 2009 to 2011 in the Obama administration.
“The precise number of weapons he has doesn’t really make that big of a difference as long as we’re not freaked out,” he said.
Steinberg underscored that the key is to make sure that there’s no doubt in Kim Jong-un’s mind about the determination of the United States to respond overwhelmingly and decisively to any North Korean nuclear attack.
“The most important thing for Kim Jong-un is to stay in power,” Steinberg said. “As long as he believes that the US will be there and respond in a way that is absolutely decisive, it does limit the amount of risk he takes, no matter how much he may be backed into a corner,” he said.
During a joint news conference with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol following the summit on April 26, US President Joe Biden publicly warned that a nuclear attack by North Korea against the US or its allies would result in the end of the Kim Jong-un regime.
Biden and Yoon also signed the Washington Declaration designed to enhance the alliance’s deterrence and readiness posture to address North Korean threats better through closer coordination.
Yoon said the two countries have promised to “respond swiftly, overwhelmingly and decisively using the full force of the alliance including the United States’ nuclear weapons” in the event of a nuclear attack by North Korea.
Steinberg also said in the interview, which was held a day before the Washington summit, that the allies should not be intimidated by the number of nuclear weapons that North Korea has but rather focus on how to remind Pyongyang that any use of such a weapon will result in the end of regime.
“Whether they have 30 or 60 (nuclear weapons) doesn’t change the game, if they know that even the use of one would be the end of the regime unequivocally. We can get into the numbers game,” he said. “But I don’t believe that’s how nuclear weapons work. I think nuclear weapons work at the level of understanding that any use would be the absolute end of the regime indisputably.”
China on wrong path
Steinberg also highlighted the significance of projecting such a perception onto the Kim Jong-un regime, especially in the absence of support from China and Russia, in establishing a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula amid the intricate security dynamics compounded by the growing China-US rivalry and Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.
The UN Security Council, for instance, has been unable to take any action to hold North Korea accountable for continuing ballistic missile launches in violation of multiple UNSC resolutions, due to persisting opposition from China and Russia, which are two of the five veto-wielding members of the council.
The closer alignment of China, North Korea and Russia has also created an environment conducive for the Kim Jong-un regime to be “more risk-tolerant and more willing to be provocative,” according to Steinberg.
Steinberg assessed that China has refrained from engaging in efforts to stop the development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, as it has framed the issue within the context of strategic competition with the United States.
“Our view has always been that China has the same interest as the rest of us, which is that a nuclear North Korea is dangerous not because North Korea is going to attack China, but because it creates instability in the region, which is a problem for China,” Steinberg said.
“The problem that seems to have happened right now is that China, because of its adversarial relationship with the United States, is unwilling to do things that are in China’s interest simply because it’s something that the US also wants.”
Steinberg views China’s noncooperation on North Korea policy as “very counterproductive,” while forecasting that China won’t lend support to the US unless the US and China figure out a way to change the current course of the relationship.
“At the end of the day, Chinese are going to do this if they think it’s in their own interest,” he said. “We’re not going to plead with China to do it. We’re not going to threaten China.”
For now, the US’ best option is to make China realize that its attempt to shape North Korea policy in the context of US-China relations is a “mistake.”
“We just need to be very clear and unequivocal in saying that there are two choices here, which are that either they can help us or they can run the risk that the situation will get out of hand and that won’t be good for anybody,” Steinberg said. “But we’re ready for this and if they really want to tolerate that risk, then they better be ready for it, too.”