At the year’s end in 2022, Kim Jong-un, leader of North Korea, made a pair of shocking declarations. First, Kim stated that the country would eventually equip 30 KN-25 launchers, each of which can carry six missiles, with tactical nuclear weapons, for a total of 180 nuclear weapons. This is because “South Korea has become ‘our undoubted enemy,'” he said. This is significantly higher than what has been predicted by most analysts. Then, in line with the solid-fuel large rocket engine tested in December, he ordered North Korea to deploy a new ICBM capable of rapid launch.
Danger posed by the Reclusive Kingdom
To put it another way, Kim’s announcements are all part of a larger “divide and conquer” strategy. The United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) can counter this threat by maintaining their alliance and using information as a weapon against the Kim regime. In North Korea, exposing audiences to foreign information and culture could be used to undermine support for the ruling regime.
The apparent range of the North Korean KN-25 missiles is just under 400 kilometres, making them a threat only to the ROK or China and not to Japan or the US. An army of 180 North Korean nuclear weapons would certainly pose an existential threat to the ROK if North Korea does not already do so.
Meanwhile, North Korea has threatened the United States with a new intercontinental ballistic missile that uses solid fuel. The mere possibility of this happening could increase concerns in the ROK about the U.S. nuclear umbrella, which states that the U.S. will use nuclear weapons in response to any nuclear attack on the ROK. The United States has assured the Republic of Korea and other allies that they will be protected by its nuclear umbrella, reducing the incentive for them to develop their own nuclear weapons, which would increase the risk of nuclear proliferation around the world. To what extent, however, will a future president of the United States be willing to use nuclear weapons in retaliation for North Korean nuclear attacks on the Republic of Korea if a brutal dictator like Kim Jong-un threatens to hit 20 or 30 or 40 U.S. cities with nuclear weapons carried by this new ICBM? These intercontinental ballistic missiles won’t be available any time soon, but they might not be too far off, either.
U.S. and South Korea Face Parallel Dangers
It’s not surprising that the United States and the Republic of Korea have slightly divergent interests in regards to Kim’s nuclear weapons, given the different threats each faces. Kim seems to want to capitalise on these distinctions. Through Trump’s presidency, Kim was able to successfully highlight these differences. Former President Trump granted Kim’s request to drastically reduce U.S. military training (“war games”) with the ROK in 2018. These exercises are essential for keeping the ROK and the United States ready to respond to North Korean military attacks. Trump continued by saying that the United States shouldn’t be concerned about North Korea’s short-range missile tests (like the KN-25), despite the fact that these missiles pose a direct threat to the lives of tens of thousands of American citizens living in Korea and that, under ROK and U.S. law, any military threat to the ROK is also a threat to the United States. Alliance for Mutual Defense. The short-range missile tests have also been disregarded by the Biden administration.
Kim Jong-long-term un’s goal is to control all of the Korean peninsula. If he succeeds, he will further solidify his position as North Korea’s leader. There is a wide range of threats to Kim’s regime in North Korea. His failure to provide sufficient food and electricity for his people is just one example; another is the brutality he has imposed to maintain control, which includes the executions and imprisonments of even the elite. He probably thinks that if he can take control of the peninsula, he can use the ROK’s wealth to solve a lot of his own problems.
How Well Does Kim Handle a Wedge?
However, Kim must succeed in convincing the ROK and the US to break their alliance if he is to establish dominance on the peninsula. As long as the US backs the ROK, Kim won’t be able to consolidate power. A survey conducted by the Korea Institute for National Unification in 2021 found that nearly half of South Koreans thought the North Korean military was stronger than the ROK military, despite the fact that the U.S. supported the ROK. North Korea’s military might (and especially its nuclear weapons) may give it the coercive power it needs to dominate the peninsula if the alliance is shattered.
In light of the growing nuclear threat from North Korea, the Republic of Korea and the United States may need to take more drastic measures to prevent the regime from dominating the peninsula. If Kim’s provocations are not deterred, it may be necessary for the ROK and the US to organise, threaten North Korea with punishment in response to its provocations, and then carry out such responses. The sanctions imposed by the Republic of Korea and the United States may be most effective if they have a direct impact on Kim. U.S. efforts to punish North Korea in response to its provocations have received more attention than U.S. efforts to prevent those provocations in advance. The North Korean ICBM tests that the Defense Department confirmed began in February and March of 2022 are an example of the kind of provocation that could make deterrence all the more important.
U.N. Resolutions Prohibit Such Amassments
Recent missile tests by North Korea violate numerous United Nations resolutions. Consequences similar to those experienced by other countries which have allowed prohibited military buildups are threatened by Security Council Resolutions. Countries in Europe, for instance, paid a heavy price for their reluctance to enforce the Treaty of Versailles against Germany’s military buildup in the 1930s.
Can Anything Stop North Korea?
What strategies exist to create such a barrier? The diplomatic, informational, military, and economic (DIME) (PDF) options available to the United States in dealing with any potential adversary. North Korea has rejected all attempts at diplomatic engagement. The United States has used up most of the leverage it can get from economic sanctions and, due to opposition from China and Russia, is unlikely to impose any serious enhancements of such sanctions. North Korea has apparently increased its missile tests in response to the United States and the Republic of Korea’s increased military drills, confirming the worst fears of the international community. Attacking North Korea militarily would only serve to escalate tensions. Yet, it is crucial that the ROK and the U.S. continue their alliance and work and train their forces together in order to counter Kim’s efforts. Indeed, it is ironic that in 2022, despite Kim’s best efforts, the ROK and the United States grew closer to one another.
The Influence of Extraneous Factors on Kim
Fortunately, the ROK and the U.S. may find information to be a fertile field for action against North Korea, and this may pose a direct threat to Kim. While Kim claims he shut down his border with China to keep out COVID-19, he almost certainly also wanted to keep out outside information. Kim has since waged extensive campaigns to limit the spread of news from abroad. Even K-Pop, in Kim’s eyes, is a “vicious cancer” that could eventually bring down his regime.
Because of Kim’s efforts, it is more challenging for the ROK and the US to use information as a weapon against North Korea. However, the ROK and the US could threaten a number of information operations in response to any North Korean missile or nuclear weapon test, including the delivery of thousands of USB drives into Pyongyang, loaded with K-Pop, K-Dramas, and messages to the North Korean elite. Obviously, Kim could have a severe reaction to such ROK and US actions. The Republic of Korea and the United States must assume that North Korea will take escalatory measures. If the ROK and the US plan ahead and pose deterrent threats to limit or stop any potential escalation by North Korea, they may be able to avoid such escalation. It’s like chess, where most people lose if they only focus on their next move.
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The Republic of Korea and the United States could also increase funding for groups that broadcast radio and television into North Korea and neighbouring areas. While the North does its best to block incoming broadcasts, some get through. Those who do are likely to share what they’ve learned with their fellow countrymen. North Koreans living and working abroad, such as students and diplomats, may also be a valuable target demographic. Those who leave North Korea and live elsewhere share what they’ve learned with their friends and family back home; upon their return, they may share much more.
Kim is worried about the relatively low volume of news reaching the North at the moment. It’s possible that he’d be willing to tone down his provocations if he sees that the North is benefiting from the information that’s being brought in from the outside. The Republic of Korea and the United States could at least give it a try with such initiatives.