North Korea and Kim Jong Un’s Nuclear Escalation, Explained

Tensions on the Korean peninsula are at their highest in years after an unprecedented year of missile launches by North Korea – and a more belligerent stance by South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk-yeol.

In 2022, North Korea launched at least 95 missiles — more than in any previous year — and fired another short-range missile on New Year’s Day this year, according to the New York Times. The tests are a product of several factors, including domestic North Korean politics, as well as the rapid and extreme deterioration of diplomatic relations between Kim Jong Un’s regime and the US-South Korea alliance since 2019’s failed summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, between Kim and former President Donald Trump.

Since Yoon’s inauguration in May 2022, the South and the US have pursued a strategy of dealing with the North, pursuing joint military exercises the North sees as provocative, and even sending unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Pyongyang after one of the North’s own drones buzzed Seoul, the South -Korea’s capital.

Despite a 2018 North-South resolution banning military hostilities between the two nations, both sides have engaged in increasingly dramatic shows of force in recent months that, given the lack of diplomatic efforts, could raise the possibility of serious miscalculations and outright conflict from both parties.

The explicit threats from Kim, as well as the increase in missile tests, point to a North Korea interested in projecting a credible deterrent capacity and trying to manage instability internally. And the South takes a hard line, projecting its own strength — sometimes at odds with the interests of the United States, its primary military ally.

Given both nations’ pledges to increase their military capabilities, the prospect of peace on the peninsula appears to be diminishing with each passing day. Furthermore, the United States – which maintains a force presence in the South – is not doing enough to prevent conflict and encourage diplomacy to prevent miscommunication, according to Ankit Panda, Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The United States should do more to express concerns about possible allied defensive plans and postures that could actually increase the risk of escalation,” which would inevitably implicate the United States.

What is North Korea actually planning?

Kim announced last week his intention to build “overwhelming military power,” including a focus on producing shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons to target the South, as well as long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, capable of reaching the U.S. the mainland, among other innovations. Kim’s announcement, and Yoon’s suggestion that the South and the US would hold joint nuclear weapons exercises, have brought the nuclear threat into sharp focus.

As Panda told Vox via email, Kim’s policy announcement isn’t exactly new, “but more of a formulation of a fairly well-articulated and constant nuclear strategy.” Kim and his predecessors have always seen the South and the US as their existential adversaries; the new political announcements and missile tests simply make the Nordic nuclear threats more realistic and achievable. “Their intentions have not changed: They still reserve the right to use nuclear weapons first to deter an attack on their territory,” Panda said.

Instead of an ambiguous threat of nuclear firepower, the North is now putting increased energy into tactical nuclear weapons that could be used in a battlefield scenario, or to repel a perceived attack from the South.

Increased focus on solid-fuel rockets also indicates the intention to deploy missiles quickly, as they come pre-propelled and are highly mobile. Solid-fuel missile development has been a priority for Kim since at least the party’s plenary session in January 2021. Kim held a successful ground launch of a solid-fuel rocket engine — which could be used on either an ICBM or a missile launched from a submarine — in December.

“They have identified solid-propellant ICBMs as a particular focus for this year,” Panda said, specifying that “we should expect to see flight testing of large-diameter solid-propellant missiles and perhaps even solid-propellant ICBMs this year.”

Missiles are only the delivery vehicle – and only one aspect of the nuclear threat. The North’s nuclear arsenal also depends on its ability to develop warheads – the missile’s payload.

Nuclear weapons development in the North is difficult to track because of the extremely secretive (and illegal) nature of this work, but the missile tests, Kim’s announcements and satellite images help analysts understand how far the Kim regime is in creating weapons of mass destruction.

The North has not staged a nuclear test since September 2017, but experts have told Vox that all signs point to a seventh at any time — and even an eighth soon after, Panda said.

Two of the North’s most important nuclear facilities are the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center, which has a uranium enrichment facility, and Punggye-ri, the country’s only nuclear test site.

Yongbyon remains operational, Joseph Bermudez, the head of Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Vox. “We’re seeing railcars coming in and out, we’re seeing demolition of several buildings and work to update other buildings, we’re seeing activity in and around the reactors and also in and around the centrifuge facility,” he said, but without thermal images. it is impossible to say what that activity means.

As for Punggye-ri, the test site, “it’s basically been quiet for the last couple of months,” Bermudez said. However, U.S. and South Korean officials have indicated they believe a nuclear test could take place “anytime Kim Jong Un decides to do it,” he said, adding that images from earlier this week “show tracks in the snow that indicate movement of vehicles.”

“We think someone is checking it,” although given the location of the facility — one of the entrances is shielded by a steep mountainside and the angle of the sun — it’s hard to tell who and what is coming in and out. The North also tends to move equipment and vehicles under cloud cover and in the dark, further obscuring these movements from outside observers.

Bermudez assessed that the North is “not only validating missile designs but probably refining them,” and repeated missile tests indicate that “new systems are coming online and being deployed to units.”

Still, for Kim to use a nuclear missile or stage an invasion of the South would be a death sentence, both for his military and his regime. And the increased missile tests and activity around nuclear facilities can only provide limited information about the North’s actual capabilities.

But the fear that a nuclear-armed North Korea instills in its opponents also serves a purpose; For all the tests and parades, Kim’s nuclear arsenal is further along than it has ever been, but it is far from complete. What Kim is showing may not yet work militarily, “but it certainly has the potential to be coercive,” Bennett said.

Nuclear escalation on the peninsula has as much to do with internal politics as foreign affairs

Kim likely feels wary of engaging in diplomacy with the United States or South Korea because of the spectacular breakdown in peace talks with former President Donald Trump, Toby Dalton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Vox in a previous interview. That process ended in humiliating failure in Hanoi, Vietnam, when Trump tried to push for full denuclearization in return for an end to the punitive sanctions regime the US has built up over decades.

“[Kim] took some risks with his home constituency in pursuing that diplomacy — and then it fell apart, and I think he was embarrassed by that,” Dalton said. From the North’s perspective, “they are not willing to trust South Korea or the United States to engage in diplomacy,” he told Vox, and the parties involved don’t even agree on what the outcome of that diplomacy would be.

“It is not surprising that inter-Korean dynamics are as tense as they are right now,” Panda said. “We have seen this pattern play out under previous conservative-led governments in Seoul. That said, [North’s] weapons development plans would likely have continued as they have regardless of the outcome of the 2022 South Korean election.”

Internal politics, especially in the North, favor a muscular response – at least in the eyes of Kim and Yoon.

In the North, for example, “even the elites have problems,” according to Bruce Bennett, a researcher at the RAND Corporation. Some members of the leadership and Kim’s inner circle have reportedly been purged; “[Kim’s] has been quite brutal, and it has not only been with ordinary people – it has been with the elite as well.” Internal fighting, such as consistent fuel and food shortages, poses a serious threat to Kim’s leadership, and in an authoritarian government the only way to deal with internal fighting is to blame it on an external enemy.

“What does Kim need to deal with her internal instability? What he needs is to look powerful,” hence the escalated rhetoric from both him and his sister and adviser, Kim Yo Jong. Testing, threats and military parades help the elite feel: “Wow, we are powerful, [Kim] is a good leader, he makes us powerful,” Bennett said, easing the pressure on Kim himself.

South Korea does not face the same internal problems; it has the support of the United States and a strong military and economy. Polls indicate that South Koreans may see China – not the North – as their biggest adversary in the future. Still, Yoon has followed a “strength for strength” tactic, in contrast to former President Moon Jae-in’s pursuit of concessions and reconciliation to reach a negotiated outcome. While Yoon’s response may reassure South Koreans that they are defended from the North, it does little to deter Kim, Bennett said.

“[Kim] appears to be trying to split the US-ROK alliance” in order to isolate the South and demonstrate some form of dominance on the peninsula by explicitly focusing on shorter-range weapons that can only reach the South and ICBMs that will only be useful against the US, Bennett said.

Yoon’s claims that the US and the South discussed joint nuclear drills are a “good example of where an ally can get ahead of where the US is ready to go,” Panda said. The Biden administration is focused on repairing relations with allies after “the horrific treatment that American allies endured at the hands of the Trump administration,” Panda said — but that approach could backfire.

Rather, Biden should be more explicit with regional allies — including Japan, which is pursuing remilitarization after decades of minimal defense spending — about what America’s boundaries and intentions are regarding the North. Just as crucially, the US and allies must follow diplomatic channels to try to reduce the risk of miscommunication and miscalculation while still possible.

“I would say there is always room for diplomacy,” Bermudez said, but given the situation, “it seems like that room is very tight.”

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