Will North Korea test a nuclear weapon next?
A new but predictable cycle of crisis is about to begin between North Korea, South Korea, and the United States and its allies in Asia.
However, this crisis will differ in one key important way from almost all of the other North Korea-driven nuclear showdowns of years past — and especially in 2017: almost no one will care until it’s too late to do anything about it.
While the starting point can be debated, recent tensions between North and South Korea conveniently light a path to how the crisis is building and what is driving it. Pyongyang, its economy in shambles and its leader, King Jong Un, having very little to show for his 10-year reign, is turning back to the well-worn playbook of missile (and soon-to-be-nuclear) tests, in my view, as a way to show his people that their lack of food and well-being is not in vain.
Kim is also pulling another page out of the North Korean escalatory playbook in using whatever rhetoric out of South Korea to create a crisis out of nearly nothing. Taking advantage of a bold — but not necessarily over-the-top remark — about South Korea’s ability to strike the north’s nuclear weapons facilities, South Korea’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, lashed out in two separate statements carried in North Korean state media. What caught many Korean watchers’ attention: she seemed to threaten nuclear war if attacked in any way by South Korea.
While this wouldn’t exactly be the first time North Korea threatened to exterminate millions of their fellow Koreans, what is new is the world’s lack of response to the remark. In fact, the answer one producer gave me at a major national TV news network when I asked if she wanted to cover it (I was in the studio to give commentary on the Ukraine crisis) was telling. “North Korea? We don’t care much anymore unless they do something new. All that missile stuff? Who cares? That’s old and not sexy anymore. Show me the sexiness of North Korea and I will show you the air time.”
That says a lot. North Korea, after years of countless crises after crises, is clearly not getting the attention it used to as the missile tests have begun to fade into the background. According to the same producer, those missile tests are now “just routine.” While the Ukraine crisis, inflation, and the Biden Administration are struggling with myriad other issues, it seems what used to get North Korea into the headlines back in 2017 just isn’t working anymore. Plus, without the Donald Trump factor, it seems North Korea has faded from our collective imaginations.
But that could all be changing soon. North Korea still needs economic support in the way of sanctions relief to prop up an economy that has been slammed by COVID-19 lockdowns that could’ve been the worst on the planet (we just don’t know because of the complete blackout of information). Kim also still dreams of becoming less dependent on China for his very survival and returning to the days of the 1970s when his family was able to play the great powers off one another, gaining concessions from several benefactors while consolidating and guaranteeing power over the DPRK.
What does that all mean? Simple: A lack of attention plus the hope that it can gain some sort of sanctions relief means North Korea may start testing nuclear weapons, possibly as early as Thursday night (April 15) EST, as Pyongyang celebrates the 110th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung. Nothing says sexy or can drive headlines like a nuclear weapon going off. Not only has Kim tipped his hand that he may do this, going back to as early 2021, he seems to be rebuilding his nuclear testing facilities. Kim needs to know that those same facilities will safely capture and measure what would likely be tests of tactical nuclear weapons or a new hydrogen bomb design.
The sad reality is, that this should never be this close to happening. But just like major TV networks don’t care about North Korea, neither does Washington. Had the Biden Administration shown at least some sort of interest in the North Korean issue — instead of crafting no policy guidance whatsoever beyond the overused talking points that it wanted to talk to North Korea at any time about anything — there could’ve been a chance of avoiding rising tensions.
Team Biden clearly was hoping that North Korea would stay quiet and that the status-quo of no long-range missile or nuclear tests would hold. The Biden foreign policy shop likely sees North Korea as an issue that would require more time, energy, and political capital to get any sort of diplomatic traction going, all of which seem in short supply these days. And what is the political payoff?
Strangely, Biden has never given a detailed policy address on the DPRK, never truly articulated a North Korea strategy that anyone can point to as definitive, and does not even have a full-time special envoy. This sounds and feels very much like the Obama Administration’s so-called “strategic patience” policy but with even less clarity and interest. Yes, the Biden Administration wants to talk to North Korea, but only about full denuclearization, and with no sense of what terms or concessions either side would be expected to consider in a negotiation. No wonder Pyongyang seems disinterested in diplomacy.
All of this creates a witch’s brew where only trouble can simmer. North Korea will — in the absence of gaining any sanctions relief — continue to build up its nuclear weapons arsenal and missile technology. If it can’t get any relief, it will most likely sell whatever military technology it has to the highest bidder, as it has clearly done with Iran. It seems like the old cycle of provocations by North Korea, followed by calls for more sanctions by Washington and calls for talks without any clarity about what will be in our future, all over again. But is anyone really paying attention, and when they do, will it be too late?