[News analysis] How the current nuclear threats Korea faces differ from the crises of 1994 and 2017

Posted on : 2023-07-25 09:58 KST Modified on : 2023-07-25 09:58 KST
A lack of guardrails to block a clash adds to the dangers of intensifying nuclear threats
The USS Kentucky (SSBN-737), a nuclear-capable American submarine, sits in a naval port in Busan on July 19. (presidential office pool photo)
The USS Kentucky (SSBN-737), a nuclear-capable American submarine, sits in a naval port in Busan on July 19. (presidential office pool photo)

The intensity of nuclear threats that the US and North Korea are trading has reached an extreme, surpassing even the levels of 1994 and 2017, when the Korean Peninsula was pushed to the brink of war.

The entire Korean Peninsula finds itself mired in a nuclear threat security dilemma, in which one side boasts of its nuclear power to keep its opponent’s nukes at bay, prompting the same opponent to respond by cranking up the tenor of its threats.

North Korea recently rattled its nuclear saber ahead of the first meeting on July 18 of the US-South Korea Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG), a body created to strengthen US extended deterrence commitment to South Korea.

On July 13, North Korea launched its solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-18, which was followed up with statements on July 14 and 17 by Kim Yo-jong, the politically powerful sister of Kim Jong-un, in which she strongly rebuked the deployment of US strategic assets on the Korean Peninsula.

When a US Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) docked in Busan on Tuesday, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the East Sea the following morning.

The missiles flew for 550 kilometers — the same distance from the Sunan area where North Korea fired the missiles to Busan in the South.

The missile launch was a blatant warning that North Korea means to retaliate against US strategic assets with nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s response did not stop there.

North Korean Defense Minister Kang Sun-nam stated in a press statement on Thursday that the US had “posed the most undisguised and direct nuclear threat to the DPRK [. . . ] on the Korean peninsula for the first time after 40 odd years,” warning that such actions “may fall under the conditions of the use of nuclear weapons specified in the DPRK law on the nuclear force policy.”

While North Korea has made many provocative statements against South Korea and the United States, such as turning Seoul into a “sea of fire” and stating that it would “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire” (Kim Jong-un, Sept. 2017), this most recent rhetoric is the first time that they have officially issued a threat with specific reference to its nuclear force policy.

One would be well within reason to argue that the Korean Peninsula is now the most vulnerable to the threat of a nuclear bomb dropping since the North Korean nuclear crisis that began in 1993.

The closest the peninsula has come to war since the ceasefire was in the summer of 1994 — but that was before North Korea had a full-scale nuclear arsenal, and there was still a sense of reason to prevent a reckless conflict.

Former US President Jimmy Carter visited North Korea on June 16 of that year and met with Kim Il-sung (1912-1994), and the Korean Peninsula narrowly escaped the brink of war.

The second nuclear crisis came in 2017, when North Korea and the US clashed head-on, with both sides referring to the “nuclear button” on their desks.

James Mattis, the US secretary of defense at the time, reportedly frequently visited the Washington National Cathedral to pray that a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula could be averted.

The Japan Self-Defense Forces were also thinking about their response in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula.

What shone through was the South Korean government’s consistent stance that there should be no war.

“Our government will do everything it can to prevent war from breaking out,” President Moon Jae-in said in his Liberation Day address that year.

Kim Jong-un responded to this tone, and January 2018 marked the beginning of the “Korean Peninsula peace process.”

The biggest difference between then and now is that nuclear crisis has become institutionalized, so to say.

With the law “on the state policy of the nuclear forces” that it enacted last September, North Korea stated that nuclear weapons could not only be used when under attack by nuclear arms or other weapons of mass destruction, during nuclear and non-nuclear attacks by hostile forces against the state leadership, and during lethal military attacks against major strategic targets — but also when such attacks were deemed to be “imminent.”

Kang Sun-nam threatened that Pyongyang could use the law as a basis for launching a “preventive” attack on the US.

“The US military side should realize that its nuclear assets have entered extremely dangerous waters,” he warned.

South Korea and the US have dismissed the North Korean nuclear threat, but neither has shared any solution for easing the crisis.

In a statement issued Friday, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense said the arrival of a US strategic nuclear submarine in Busan was a “legitimate defensive response measure by the South Korea-US alliance."

In a regular briefing Thursday, Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said, “I certainly don’t think rhetoric like that [from North Korea] is helpful.”

Calling the rhetoric “incredibly dangerous,” she also stated that the submarine’s presence “reflects our ironclad commitment to the region.”

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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