In the early morning hours on Thursday, Japan went on alert — with citizens in the northern prefectures urged to seek shelter, and trains halted — after North Korea fired three missiles toward the sea, including one suspected intercontinental ballistic missile, according to reports.
The past month has seen a rapid escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula: North Korea conducting repeated military provocations, while joint U.S.-South Korea-Japan military drills have continued in the Sea of Japan since early October. Last week, the two Koreas went as far as exchanging warning shots at sea.
Pyongyang said Tuesday that the U.S.-led drills “can no longer be tolerated” and subsequently launched more than two dozen missiles on Wednesday, with one falling near South Korean waters “for the first time since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War,” according to the Washington Post.
This recent escalation began soon after the USS Ronald Reagan docked in South Korea’s southern city of Busan on September 23. Two days later, North Korea responded by conducting the first of what would become a long and ongoing series of military provocations.
U.S.-led joint military drills with South Korea are nothing new and the North Koreans usually just release statements criticizing joint exercises but refrain from conducting actual missile tests. But Pyongyang’s response this time around is noteworthy given its resolute and highly emboldened posture.
It’s also notable that several of the North Korean tests took place at night, given the various technical complexities. North Korea showed that it could fire missiles at all times of day and from many different locations, including from an underwater silo in a reservoir. Regarding the latter, it was later revealed that the South Korean military had failed to accurately detect from where this missile was launched and could only track its trajectory when it was already in the air.
But it’s not just missile tests. North Korea has been showing the world that its military capabilities stretch beyond its rockets and missiles. The North has fired hundreds of artillery rounds in recent weeks, with some even falling in maritime buffer zones. North Korean fighter jets are also holding drills near South Korean airspace.
These demonstrations come after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced a new law on the use of the country’s nuclear weapons in September. In a speech, he declared that defining the country’s nuclear policy in law had “made our state’s status as a nuclear weapon state irreversible.”
The law details under what conditions nuclear weapons could be used. According to the law, if the North Korean leader were to suffer an accident, “a nuclear strike shall be launched automatically and immediately to destroy hostile forces.”
The measure also has very real implications for future diplomacy with Pyongyang, as Kim Jong Un said his country would never again engage in talks premised on its denuclearization. “There will never be such a thing as our abandonment of the nuclear weapons or denuclearization first, nor will there be any negotiations to this end or bargaining chip in these processes,” Kim said in September.
With its seemingly more confident and emboldened attitude, North Korea may think that the United States is distracted by various other issues, including the war in Ukraine, its economic rivalry with China, and domestic political issues. All the while, the Biden administration has yet to introduce a new strategy for engaging with North Korea.
So while Washington seems content to hold on to “strategic patience,” Pyongyang has been growing its arsenal and has gained more support from both Russia and China, which both vetoed U.S. calls for additional UN Security Council-level sanctions against North Korea back in May.
And sanctions have not brought any resolution to the North Korea issue. Yet the United States continues to adhere to its same old strategies, like restarting joint military drills in response to North Korean provocations.
Although it may be difficult for many in Washington to accept, North Korea has already become a nuclear weapons state and it is not going to give them up in exchange for mere words. Kim seems unimpressed with the U.S. and South Korean position of “keeping the door to dialogue open.”
Simply stating “we are open to dialogue” does nothing to show Pyongyang that talks would turn out any differently from Kim’s meetings with President Trump in Hanoi. The Biden administration must make major changes in its approach clear. This is not capitulating to North Korean provocations; it’s conducting responsible policy as the world’s biggest superpower to ensure safety and security in East Asia and beyond. If the United States really believes it’s the world’s leading power, it must act like it.
The best option for now is to find ways to prevent North Korea from further expanding and developing its weapons programs through dialogue premised on mutual respect and a give-and-take approach.
Although North Korea may someday choose to give up its nuclear weapons, the current focus should be on creating an environment that can set the foundation for this potential eventuality. The United States must aim for a long-term productive relationship with North Korea, build lasting trust, and always keep the goal of ending the Korean War in mind in order to finally make peace on the Korean Peninsula a real possibility.
A closer relationship between Washington and Pyongyang means that it's less likely North Korea will use its nuclear weapons and more likely it will abandon them.
There’s no doubt it’s a huge challenge, but the costs of continuing to ignore the issue are even greater.