South Korea Preparing for North Korea’s Intensive Provocations
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared at the end of last year’s Workers’ Party Central Committee meeting that the priority of the 2024 defense agenda is “expanding nuclear weapon production.” He threatened that the relationship between North and South Korea is like being at “war,” and that in case of emergency, nuclear forces should be mobilized to “prepare for a major event” to conquer South Korean territory. North Korea has been escalating military tensions since the beginning of the year, with a surprise artillery fire near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the West Sea from January 5th to 7th. Also, North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility is being test-run, raising concerns about further “plutonium acquisition.” North Korea conducted five long-range ballistic missile (ICBM) launch tests targeting the United States throughout 2023 and launched a military reconnaissance satellite, drawing criticism from the international community. This year, there are general elections in South Korea in April and the U.S. presidential election in November, with harsh provocations from North Korea expected. North Korea intends to cause internal division in South Korea and threaten the United States to gain an advantageous position in negotiations with the next U.S. administration. More than ever, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration needs to strengthen its strong deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear threats and enhance national security consciousness.
Looking back on last year, the Kim Jong Un regime in North Korea continuously provoked to shake the South Korea-U.S.-Japan security cooperation system, using China and Russia as shields. Yet, in the UN Security Council, China and Russia are advocating for North Korea, leading to an unfortunate situation where additional UN-level sanctions against North Korea cannot be imposed. Fortunately, based on the strong Korea-U.S. alliance, the Washington Declaration was announced at the South Korea-U.S. summit in April 2023, the Nuclear Consultation Group (NCG) was established, and the Camp David Declaration forming the South Korea-U.S.-Japan security alliance was achieved in August last year. This has built a solid security cooperation system between South Korea and the U.S., as well as between South Korea, the U.S., and Japan, effectively deterring North Korea’s nuclear provocations.
The global supply chain reconstruction that has continued since the inauguration of the Biden administration in 2021 has intensified the tech supremacy competition between the U.S. and China. The worsening U.S.-China relations have led China to equivocate North Korea’s position at the UN. Kim Jong Un’s visit to Russia in September last year has solidified North Korea-Russia relations. In effect, a confrontation between the South Korea-U.S.-Japan security cooperation system and the North Korea-China-Russia alliance is unfolding in Northeast Asia. A new Cold War era is unfolding. The Yoon Suk-yeol administration has been suppressing North Korea’s nuclear provocations with swift diplomatic activities, and its diplomatic capability is expanding beyond the Indo-Pacific region to NATO members. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is now entering its third year. The Yoon administration has emphasized the injustice of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and enhanced solidarity with NATO countries as a member of the international community, raising our country’s stature.
This year, many changes are expected in international relations surrounding the Korean Peninsula. At the U.S.-China summit held in San Francisco in November 2023, a mechanism was established to prevent military clashes between the U.S. and China, but the U.S.’s containment policy against China has not changed. U.S.-China relations remain uneasy. Especially with the U.S. presidential election coming up in November, candidates’ China-bashing is expected to heat up. Former President Trump, a strong candidate in the U.S. election, will be a significant variable in the U.S.’s North Korea policy. Trump is boasting of his friendly relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the campaign trail. If Trump succeeds in returning to power, there is a high probability that North Korea will become the core of the next U.S. administration’s foreign policy. Therefore, North Korea is hoping for Trump’s election victory and plans to achieve its goals through a sudden resumption of U.S.-North Korea summit talks.
In 2016, ahead of the U.S. election, North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and fired countless ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), exacerbating tensions on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea will likely attempt similar provocations again. In the past, Russia and China participated in UN Security Council-level sanctions against North Korea, but such North Korea pressure mechanisms are no longer functioning. The only way to prevent North Korea’s provocations is to secure military superiority through a strong South Korea-U.S. alliance and South Korea-U.S.-Japan security cooperation system.
The Russian presidential election is on March 17 and the Taiwanese presidential election is on January 13. Russian President Putin will likely be elected for a fifth term, and Putin is expected to take an offensive stance against Ukraine and the West after his election. The short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) that North Korea recently provided to Russia were used in attacks on Ukraine. The military alliance relationship between North Korea and Russia is expected to strengthen further. Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated in his New Year’s address that “Taiwanese unification is a historical inevitability.” Due to Taiwan’s geopolitical importance, the interests between the U.S. and China surrounding Taiwan will become more complicated depending on the results of the Taiwanese presidential election. The influence of China and Russia is intensifying in Northeast Asia. The Kim Jong Un regime in North Korea will exploit the North Korea-China-Russia alliance relationship on the Korean Peninsula to its advantage. As North Korea has clearly expressed its intention to provoke, various forms of military provocations will be carried out this year.
Recently, former U.S. senior officials have argued that the focus should be on nuclear deterrence rather than denuclearization of North Korea. As North Korea’s nuclear threat intensifies, South Korea and the U.S. need to prepare more meticulous countermeasures to perfectly deter North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
The key North Korean policies the 2024 administration should focus on can be summarized as follows.
First, to deter North Korea’s nuclear threats, the South Korea-U.S.-Japan security cooperation system should be strengthened and the operation of the Nuclear Consultation Group (NCG) between South Korea and the U.S. should be more actively promoted. Second, efforts should be made to secure strong power that can overwhelm North Korea’s military power. Our military responded twice as much to North Korea’s surprise artillery fire on January 5. They did well. It is reassuring. The fact that “in the 1980s U.S.-Soviet Cold War system, the Soviet Union followed the U.S.’s Star Wars plan, which led to economic difficulties and eventually became one of the causes of the collapse of the communist system” suggests a lot. The government should focus on developing more precise and formidable advanced weapons and build a strategic weapons system that can overwhelm North Korea. Third, the issue that is differentiated between democratic countries and communist regimes is the issue of human rights. North Korea does not even allow freedom of religion. The government should use its position as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council to actively point out North Korea’s human rights abuses to the international community. Fourth, by strengthening the international cooperation system, North Korea’s cryptocurrency hacking should be thoroughly blocked so that it cannot be used as a source of funds for missile development and other activities. Fifth, regardless of the result of the U.S. election, the U.S. government’s North Korea policy should be aligned with our government, and diplomatic capabilities should be strengthened. Let’s prepare countermeasures by forming a government-level red team to prepare for future situations that may occur if former President Trump returns to power.
By. Tae Yoon Uhm