North Korea has become the newest nuclear power. What will the US do?

Early this year, as Russia prepared to invade Ukraine, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seemed to see an opportunity.

With the United States and its allies distracted and busy countering Moscow’s combativeness, Pyongyang’s generals would put on a show by firing more test missiles than ever before in such a short period of time.

That’s included two sets of launches since US President Joe Biden completed his visit to the region last month, first test of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017, and 30 other types of missiles laid off in January alone.

Ominously, satellite images suggest Pyongyang is preparing now for its seventh nuclear test under a remote mountain in the northeast of the country, as it continues to develop deadly explosive “tips” for its missiles.

A satellite image shows a better overview of a new excavation activity at the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex in Yongbyon, North Korea, on April 20. (Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

The United Nations Security Council, which once strongly condemned the tests and was united in adopting harsh sanctions, is now distracted by the conflict in Ukraine and divided. A US-backed resolution for more action was recently rejected by Russia and China and further votes do not look promising.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has dismissed the tests because North Korea is only “trying to attract attention”.

North Korea has become the newest nuclear power. What will the US do?
Diplomats attend a UN Security Council meeting on May 11 in New York City, where recent North Korea missile tests were discussed. The US is pushing for tougher sanctions against North Korea after the country conducted its 15th missile test this year. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

But for Kim, they’re meant to be a demonstration of power that the White House really can’t ignore. The enigmatic dictator seems determined to live up to the nickname he was given by former US President Donald Trump – Rocket Man.

He now appears to have accomplished what his grandfather began nearly 50 years ago, making the small, isolated Asian state — one so poor it routinely struggles to feed its people — a serious threat to the United States.

‘Strategic Patience’ During a Nuclear Threat

“North Korea is a nuclear power,” said Ankit Panda, senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of Kim Jong Un and the Bomb

“The North Koreans have shown that they can deliver a nuclear weapon really anywhere in the continental US,” he said, so reliably that US presidents “wouldn’t risk attacking North Korea in a future crisis.”

This is despite the efforts of several US leaders to stop Pyongyang, from George W. Bush’s economic sanctions, who labeled North Korea part of the “axis of evil,” to Barack Obama, who practiced “strategic patience.” trying lets Kim get tired of the program — or bankrupt herself.

Trump’s three summits with Kim failed to convince the dictator to give up nuclear missiles in exchange for sanctions relief.

North Korea has become the newest nuclear power. What will the US do?
US President Joe Biden arrives at Osan Air Base as he departs for Japan after his trip to South Korea. Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol agreed to begin talks on expanding joint military exercises amid mounting nuclear and missile threats from North Korea. (Kim Hong-Ji/Getty Images)

As for Biden, he appears to be returning to the policy of “strategic patience.” He is offered talks “without conditions,” an overture that Kim has ignored. In Seoul two weeks ago, the only message Biden had for Kim was “hello period.” He said he was “not concerned” about further North Korean testing.

Kim fired a volley of test missiles shortly afterwards, apparently in response. And there will be more, said Nam Sung-wook, a regional expert at Korea University and an analyst with Seoul’s National Intelligence Service.

“Kim Jong-un has no real interest in talking right now,” he said. “Nuclear negotiations will be very tough, very difficult to settle in the near future.”

North Korea appears to be following a familiar script, a cycle in which it puts a lot of money and effort into its nuclear missile program to see how far it can push the US and South Korea into concessions.

Then it retreats.

North Korea has become the newest nuclear power. What will the US do?
Military guards from North Korea in the back and South Korea in the front can be seen in Paju, near the border between the two countries on April 5. (Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press)

All tests play an “essential” scientific role, said Christopher Green, an analyst for a crisis group in Seoul. But he says it’s often timed to make the biggest impact internationally.

The recent salvo of launches was “designed to raise the stakes a little bit, to make sure the world realized North Korea was militarily back,” Green said.

Evading UN sanctions

Last year Kim presented an ambitious plan to the program, promising to add “all-new nuclear capabilities,” including smaller tactical battlefield nuclear weapons and a “super-sized hydrogen bomb.” Some of the recent missile tests have also focused on developing nuclear weapons that can fly closer to Earth and evade detection.

Economic sanctions may have hit the country hard, but to pay for all this, Pyongyang has found ways around them. According to a United Nations Security Council, a key strategy has been to carry out cyber-attacks on global cryptocurrency systems report concluding that these “remain an important source of income” for North Korea.

Other experts have noticed dramatic increases in oil imports via a pipeline from China, which is not subject to a UN-imposed petroleum limit and could supply 3.7 million barrels annually. That is the equivalent of the total amount North Korea is allowed to receive from all sources under UN sanctions.

North Korea has become the newest nuclear power. What will the US do?
Army medics involved in drug distribution work on May 22 during the COVID-19 pandemic in North Korea’s Pyongyang. (Korean Central News Agency/Reuters)

The rapid spread of COVID is a more immediate problem for North Korea. Without vaccines, treatment or even testing, Pyongyang estimates its national infection numbers at nearly 3.5 million in a country of about 26 million, based on high fever and other symptoms.

It said recently it’s easing lockdowns, but experts suspect it could be due to widespread food availability issues and not because the infection rate is actually falling.

COVID, hunger and poverty combine into “tough times” for Pyongyang, which could be one reason behind all the missile tests, says Green of Seoul.

“By starting a test cycle and showing military strength,” he said, “there’s a kind of ‘rally round the flag effect,'” with Kim trying to distract the North Koreans from their day-to-day activities. issues.

North Korea has become the newest nuclear power. What will the US do?
Biden greets the South Korean president during his visit to South Korea. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Whatever the reasons, Biden and newly elected South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol have vowed to counter North Korean aggression with their own military actions.

Trump may have tried to appease Kim by withdrawing from joint exercises, but Biden’s White House promises a new force, including bolder military exercises, more “strategic resources” such as planes and anti-missile systems stationed in the South, and a commitment of the US to protect allies such as South Korea and Japan with US nuclear weapons if necessary.

“President Yoon and I are committed to strengthening our close involvement,” Biden said, “and to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

In response to the latest round of North Korean tests — eight missiles launched by the North — the US and South Korea have themselves fired eight ballistic missiles into the sea.

North Korea has become the newest nuclear power. What will the US do?
South Korean and American missiles are on display at the Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea. North Korea launched a test on Wednesday with a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile and two shorter-range weapons toward its eastern waters, South Korea said, hours after Biden finished a trip to Asia, where he expressed US commitment to his allies. to defend reaffirmed. (Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press)

A statement from South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the move “demonstrated the ability and attitude to carry out immediate precision strikes on the origin of provocations, even as North Korea launches missiles from various locations.”

But the question is whether that will deter Kim or make him even more threatening because he feels threatened.

“Every step to reassure South Koreans and other allies of rock-solid US support makes North Korea more convinced of the need for nuclear weapons,” said James Trottier, a former Canadian diplomat who led four missions to Pyongyang.

North Korea has become the newest nuclear power. What will the US do?
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks at a politburo meeting of the Workers’ Party about the COVID-19 outbreak in the country. (Korean Central News Agency/Reuters)

He and other experts say the main reason the Kim dynasty followed this strategy in the first place is because of a belief that smaller countries without nuclear weapons are more vulnerable to invasion by bigger powers, pointing to Libya, Iraq – and now Ukraine, which gave up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in a 1994 agreement with Russia.

Trottier says strong responses create a “cycle of provocation” and “North Korea will come out with stronger power.”

On the other hand, if the US shows no determination to support South Korea, it could encourage that country to develop its own nuclear weapons.

A poll Research conducted earlier this year found that the proportion of South Koreans in favor of the move has risen to 70 percent, even when costs and obstacles are taken into account.

“The South Korean people feel the sword, the threat of Pyongyang,” said Seoul intelligence analyst Nam Sung-wook.

“South Korea has conventional weapons, North Korea is the nuclear-armed country. It’s not a symmetrical situation,” he said. “South Korea should go nuclear to strike the balance.”

As for the UN, the US and other countries, that would be the exact opposite of a peaceful settlement.

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