North Korea has become the last nuclear power. What will the United States do?


Earlier this year, as Russia prepared for an invasion of Ukraine, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seemed to see an opportunity.

While the United States and its allies were distracted and busy countering Moscow’s belligerence, the Pyongyang generals were going to put on a show by firing more test missiles than ever before in such a short time.

It’s included two series of launches Since US President Joe Biden ended his visit to the region last month, the first test of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017, and 30 other missile types fired in January only.

Worryingly, satellite images suggest that Pyongyang is prepare now for its seventh nuclear test under an isolated mountain in the northeast of the country, as it seeks to further develop deadly explosive “ends” for its missiles.

A satellite image shows a more detailed look at new excavation activity at the Yongbyon nuclear complex in Yongbyon, North Korea, on April 20. (Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

The United Nations Security Council, once vocal in condemning the trials and united in endorsing tough sanctions, is now distracted by the conflict in Ukraine and divided. A US-backed resolution for more action was recently opposed by Russia and China and further votes no longer look promising.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected the tests because North Korea was “just trying to get attention”.

Diplomats take part in a meeting of the UN Security Council on May 11 in New York, during which recent missile tests by North Korea were discussed. The United States is pushing to tighten sanctions on 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 show of power the White House really can’t ignore. The enigmatic dictator seems determined to live up to the nickname he received from former US President Donald Trump – Rocket Man.

He now appears to have achieved what his grandfather started nearly 50 years ago, turning the small, isolated Asian state – so poor it regularly struggles to feed its people – into a serious threat to the United States. United.

“Strategic patience” in the face of a nuclear threat

“North Korea is a nuclear power,” said Ankit Panda, senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of Kim Jong Un and the bomb.

“The North Koreans have shown that they can deliver a nuclear weapon really anywhere on the continental United States,” he said, reliably enough that American presidents “really don’t risk it.” ‘attack North Korea in a future crisis’.

This, despite the efforts of several American leaders to stop Pyongyang, from economic sanctions from George W. Bush, who called North Korea the “axis of evil”, to Barack Obama, who showed “strategic patience trying to let Kim tire of the program — or go bankrupt.

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

US President Joe Biden arrives at Osan Air Base as he departs for Japan following his trip to South Korea. Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol have agreed to start talks on expanding joint military exercises amid growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea. (Kim Hong Ji/Getty Images)

As for Biden, he appears to be reverting to the policy of “strategic patience.” It is Free speaks “without preconditions”, an opening that was ignored by Kim. 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 salvo of test missiles soon after, apparently in response. And there will be more, said Nam Sung-wook, a regional expert at Korea University and an analyst at Seoul’s National Intelligence Service.

“Kim Jong-un doesn’t really have an interest in talking right now,” he said. “Nuclear negotiations will be very tough, very difficult to settle in the near future.”

North Korea seems to be following a familiar script, a cycle where it spends a lot of money and effort on its nuclear missile program, to see how far it can push the United States and South Korea to make concessions.

Then he backs off.

Military guard posts from North Korea, rear, and South Korea, front, are seen in Paju, near the border between the two countries, on April 5. (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

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

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

Escaping UN Sanctions

Last year, Kim presented an ambitious plan to plan for the program, promising to add “entirely new nuclear capabilities”, including smaller tactical nuclear weapons for the battlefield as well as a “super-large hydrogen bomb”. Some of the recent missile tests were also aimed at developing nuclear weapons capable of flying closer to earth and evading detection.

Economic sanctions may have hit the country hard, but to pay for it all, Pyongyang has found ways around them. A major strategy has been to launch cyberattacks on global cryptocurrency systems, according to a United Nations Security Council report which concludes that these “remain an important source of revenue” for North Korea.

Other experts have noticed dramatic increases oil imports through a pipeline from China, which is not subject to a UN cap on oil and could supply 3.7 million barrels a year. This is the equivalent of the total amount North Korea is allowed to receive from all sources under UN sanctions.

Army medics involved in drug distribution work amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Pyongyang, North Korea, May 22. (Korean Central News Agency/Reuters)

The rapid spread of COVID has been a more immediate problem for North Korea. With no vaccines, treatment or even testing, Pyongyang puts its national infection tally at nearly 3.5 million in a country of around 26 million, based on high fever and other symptoms.

This recently said it facilitates lockdowns, but experts suspect this may be due to widespread food availability issues and not the actual drop in infection rates.

COVID, hunger and poverty are combining to create “tough times” for Pyongyang, which could be one of the reasons for all the missile tests, says Seoul’s Green.

‘Initiating a cycle of tests, showing military strength,’ he said, ‘there’s a kind of ‘rally around the flag,” Kim trying to distract North Koreans from their problems dailies.

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 respond to North Korean aggression with their own military moves.

Trump may have tried to appease Kim by forgoing joint drills, but White House Biden promises new toughness, including bolder military drills, more “strategic assets” like planes and anti-missile systems to station in the south and a US commitment to protect allies like South Korea and Japan with US nuclear weapons if necessary.

“President Yoon and I are committed to strengthening our close engagement,” Biden said, “and to working toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

In response to the latest round of North Korean tests – eight missiles launched by the North – the United States and South Korea tested eight ballistic missiles in the sea.

South Korean and American missiles are on display at the Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea. North Korea on Wednesday tested a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile and two shorter-range weapons toward its eastern waters, South Korea said, hours after Biden completed a trip to Asia where he reaffirmed US commitment. to defend his allies. (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

A statement from South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the move “demonstrates the capability and posture to launch immediate precision strikes on the origins of provocations, even if North Korea launches missiles from from various places”.

But some wonder if this will deter Kim or make him even more threatening because he feels threatened.

“Every step to reassure the South Koreans and other allies of the unwavering support of the United States 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 Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks at a Workers’ Party political bureau meeting on the country’s COVID-19 outbreak. (Korean Central News Agency/Reuters)

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

Trottier says strong reactions create a “cycle of provocation” and that “North Korea emerges with a stronger capability.”

On the other hand, if the United States does not show its determination to support South Korea, it could push that country to develop its own nuclear weapons.

A survey conducted earlier this year found that the proportion of South Koreans in favor of moving rose to 70%, even taking into account costs and obstacles.

“The South Korean people are feeling the sword, the threat from 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 balance it out.”

As far as the UN, the United States and other countries are concerned, that would be the exact opposite of a peaceful settlement.

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