Have Yoon’s concessions to US, Japan made Korea any safer?

Posted on : 2023-09-16 10:12 KST Modified on : 2023-09-16 10:12 KST
Grandiose rhetoric and concessions to Washington and Tokyo have done little to stymie North Korea’s efforts
North Korea announced on Sept. 8 that it had launched a “tactical nuclear attack submarine.” Leader Kim Jong-un can be seen at the launch ceremony on Sept. 6 here with Kim Tok-hun, the North’s premier. (KCNA/Yonhap)
North Korea announced on Sept. 8 that it had launched a “tactical nuclear attack submarine.” Leader Kim Jong-un can be seen at the launch ceremony on Sept. 6 here with Kim Tok-hun, the North’s premier. (KCNA/Yonhap)

Has Yoon Suk-yeol made South Korea a safer place since taking office as president? Can the millions of people who call the Korean Peninsula home sleep soundly each night, and go about their days without worry?

Has the US become a safer place since the US-North Korea summit in 2019 ended in failure? Can we say that South Korea, the US and Japan have become safer countries due to strengthened South Korea-US relations and improved Seoul-Tokyo ties?

Has East Asia attained peace?

There seems to be no end to the questions.

For starters, North Korea has bolstered its military capabilities and is acting more belligerent than ever. Since 2019, North Korea has, with remarkable speed and intensity, been developing, testing, and deploying new weapons systems. It already has at its fingertips a veritable triad of nuclear weapons: strategic nuclear weapons aimed at the US, tactical nuclear weapons capable of striking South Korea, and intermediate-range nuclear weapons that put Guam and Japan within reach.

Not only has it deployed weapons to the field, but it is carrying out exercises to simulate their use. Pyongyang has codified a strategy into law that calls for the preemptive use of nuclear weapons if necessary and has openly spoken of drills specifically aimed at “occupying the whole territory of the southern half” of the peninsula.

No room for China or Russia

In response to all these developments, Yoon and his administration have focused on strengthening the South Korea-US alliance and improving relations with Japan.

The Washington Declaration that Yoon and Biden adopted in April promised to further strengthen US extended deterrence over Korea. That the US would retaliate with nuclear weapons if North Korea made a first strike on the South with its nuclear arsenal is an age-old promise. Now, additional apparatuses are being utilized to give this decades-old pledge a patina of newness. A bilateral Nuclear Consultative Group has been established, and strategic assets, such as US strategic nuclear submarines, have made frequent appearances on the Korean Peninsula.

However, nothing indicates that North Korea is cutting back on its military actions in response to the bluster over extended deterrence. In fact, the US’ behavior has only instigated more “provocations” by the North, leading to escalating military tensions.

But the Yoon administration hasn’t stopped at hanging all its hopes on the South Korea-US alliance; it’s also been thoroughly committed to improving relations between South Korea and Japan.

It has been constantly conceding on issues concerning the Japanese military’s “comfort women” system of sexual slavery, forced mobilization and forced labor, and even the issue of discharging radioactively contaminated water into the ocean. It is even unclear whether the current government is standing its ground on the fact that Dokdo is Korean territory.

Have such concessions paid off? It convinced Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Japan to hold a summit with South Korea, and used that momentum to hold a trilateral summit with the US, where they announced the “Spirit of Camp David” document.

Despite these three powers agreeing to hold trilateral military exercises on a regular basis, North Korea has not faltered. In fact, it has only become more aggressive. It is now expanding its fronts, emphasizing the need for “strengthening the naval forces of the DPRK.”

Yoon seems to be hoping to isolate North Korea by drawing China into the South Korea-US-Japan trilateral cooperation. In an interview with the Associated Press published on Sept. 4, Yoon seemed expectant, claiming that China “seems to have considerable leverage” over North Korea, considering that 97 percent of North Korea’s total external trade volume last year was with China.

Yoon also stated that, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China must put forth “constructive efforts to denuclearize North Korea” if the North continues its banned missile tests.

However, strategies or tactics to realize this rhetoric are nowhere to be seen. Does he think that simply saying these things will be enough to persuade China, which is already vetoing sanctions against North Korea at the UN Security Council?

Yoon also seems to have hopes for Russia’s cooperation as well. Closed-door remarks at his summit with leaders of ASEAN nations revealed that “attempts to engage in military cooperation with North Korea, which is damaging the peace of the international community, should be immediately halted,” and stressed the need “for all UN member states to abide by UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea, such as banning illegal arms trade.”

This statement seemed to be aimed at Russia to urge the country to remember its responsibilities, ahead of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s visit to Russia to meet with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and discuss arms deals.

Does he think that a few words will change Russia’s position, which has already opposed sanctions on North Korea in the UN Security Council?

So far, the Yoon administration has been doing nothing but giving to the US and Japan in exchange for various pledges from those countries, but when it comes to China and Russia, it seems to believe that a couple comments will change the mindset of the two countries.

The sanctions regime on North Korea has already been blown open by countries it shares its northern border with, without any strategies or tactics on the part of Seoul to pull either China or Russia away from their support of North Korea.

North Korea hits America where it hurts

Indeed, North Korea has beaten the South to the punch. It has invited senior officials from both China and Russia to Pyongyang to deepen ties and seriously explore what can be given and received. This is the “head-on breakthrough battle” emphasized in the plenary session of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee held at the end of December 2019.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea vowed to break through sanctions and blockades by itself, closing its borders and pursuing an unprecedented self-reliant economy.

Now, with changes in the international situation, it has successfully dragged China and Russia into this breakthrough. Does it consider itself to be waging a counteroffensive now? Because Pyongyang is starting to hit Washington where it hurts.

The Hwasong-18, which North Korea test-launched in April and July of this year, is a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile. As a missile that is quicker to launch and can be used on mobile missile launch vehicles, it has the potential to neutralize US surveillance and reconnaissance.

Not only that, US experts such as Theodore Postol estimate that the missile can carry up to three nuclear warheads and multiple dummy warheads.

The US currently has a ground-based missile defense system in Alaska that is ready to intercept missiles from North Korea or China, but the Hwasong-18 could be capable of stumping that system as well.

If fake warheads fly alongside nuclear warheads, the US will not be able to intercept all of them, even if it exhausts all of its interceptors.

While the Yoon administration is crowing over the “success” of the Washington Declaration and the documents adopted at Camp David, North Korea is creating a situation that will force the US to rethink its nuclear strategy.

Is the US really thinking one step ahead of North Korea?

On Sept. 5, the White House National Security Council, the US Department of State, and the US Department of Defense issued a joint briefing that sent a clear message: If North Korea supplies weapons to Russia, as a violation of UN Security Council Resolutions, it will “pay a price for this in the international community.”

We will soon know the details of Kim Jong-un’s summit with Putin. But hysteria from Washington and American media has already exposed the country’s weak spot.

Can we really say that everything is fine and dandy in a situation such as this?

By Suh Jae-jung, professor of political science and international relations at the International Christian University in Tokyo

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

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