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North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Tests Are Aimed at Splitting Its Rivals
Can Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. stand firm against Pyongyang's efforts to drive wedges among them?
On September 3, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, soon after claiming it had miniaturized an advanced nuclear warhead. This came just days after Pyongyang launched an intermediate-range Hwasong-12 in its first overt missile test to fly over Japan’s main islands. The Japanese government alerted citizens to take cover with text messages and public sirens before the missile crashed into waters off the east coast of Hokkaido. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the missile represented an “unprecedented, grave and serious threat,” and called the nuclear test “unacceptable.”
Kim Jong Un’s regime has tested more missiles this year than North Korea conducted in nearly two decades under Kim Jong Il. This aggressive testing schedule, in flagrant violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions, appears determined to make credible North Korean threats that it could deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States, Japan or South Korea.
In addition to advancing its military capabilities, Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests have the diplomatic goal of driving wedges among the United States, its allies, and China. The Kim regime seeks to divide its neighbors to extract concessions, bust sanctions, and forestall increases in coordinated pressure. Yet if the United States strengthens trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea, it can counter Pyongyang’s threats and encourage China to force North Korea back to denuclearization talks.
Pyongyang’s ability to divide Washington and Tokyo depends on the Trump administration’s capacity to reassure Japan, and how proactive the Abe government appears on security policy. In the face of North Korea’s actions, Japanese could perceive the Trump administration as distracted by political issues ranging from Russia-gate to Charlottesville. Meanwhile, a U.S. leadership focused on alliance burden-sharing could interpret Japan’s growing need for extended deterrence as free-riding.
Yet even given this, Pyongyang’s odds of dividing Washington and Tokyo are slim. The U.S. government is very supportive of Japan; official attention and commitment are strong, despite domestic demands and a still understaffed administration. Moreover, the Abe government is keen to increase defense contributions and coordination with the United States.
North Korea’s provocations are more likely to complicate relations between Seoul and Tokyo. Security cooperation between South Korea and Japan has recently improved, including high-level dialogues, intelligence sharing, and anti-submarine and missile defense exercises. However, this progress remains tentative and under-advertised by the South Korean government to its own public.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration only quietly reassured Tokyo about limiting the effects of private wartime labor claims, and renewed the GSOMIA intelligence-sharing agreement with minimal fanfare. This is largely because South Korean politicians consider it a domestic political liability to be seen as close to Japan. Bilateral sensitivities remain regarding maritime disputes, a 2015 agreement for historical reconciliation, and different policies toward Pyongyang. While both Japan and South Korea agree on approaching North Korea with a combination of dialogue and pressure, the Moon administration is more amenable to dialogue, whereas the Abe government is more committed to pressure.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests could thus drive a wedge between Seoul and Tokyo if South Korean leaders fail to express solidarity with Japan’s national security, or if Japanese leaders fail to appreciate South Korean domestic politics. In particular, if Tokyo estimates that U.S.-Japan-South Korea coordination is insufficient to counter North Korea, Japan may seek its own ability to strike North Korean military sites. This would be difficult for Seoul to criticize when it is seeking U.S. support for greater South Korean missile capabilities. But for historical reasons, many South Koreans are concerned about changes in Japan’s defense hardware and doctrine that push the boundaries of Tokyo’s pacifist constitution. So it’s not enough for the United States to offer words of reassurance; Washington should double-down on visible and sustained trilateral coordination, including Noncombatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) and civil defense drills.
North Korea’s latest provocations will have limited effect on China’s relations with the United States and its allies. All sides understood that further cooperation on North Korea was going to be a heavy lift, given how relations are weighed down by disagreements on trade, THAAD missile defenses, and the South China Sea. Beijing did not appear supportive of additional U.N. sanctions in response to North Korea’s latest missile test. A new Security Council resolution is more likely after the sixth nuclear test. Nonetheless, Chinese officials are not in favor of ganging up on Pyongyang, because they see China’s national interests differently than the United States, South Korea, and Japan, and because they believe that North Korea tends to lash out if cornered.
It is important to recognize that North Korea also has domestic politics. While the Kim regime’s accelerated testing schedule is primarily motivated by acquiring military capabilities it deems necessary for survival, the leadership also appears sensitive to embarrassment and public failures. The August 29 test may have been an attempt to make up for a July 28 high-altitude ICBM test that apparently burned up upon reentry, an alleged climb-down from a threat to ring the U.S. Pacific island of Guam with missiles, and a failed short-range missile test on August 26. The August 29 test, launched on a more traditional rather than lofted trajectory, may have been intended to demonstrate warhead survivability, the potential for launching quickly from an unexpected location, and the range for striking not only Japan and U.S. bases there, but also the strategic air force base on Guam.
As previously scheduled U.S.-South Korea military exercises wrapped up, Washington responded to North Korea’s missile test by flying B-1 bombers from Guam over the Korean Peninsula on August 31. Beijing objects to such maneuvers and has proposed a “double freeze” whereby the United States and South Korea would halt military exercises and North Korea would suspend nuclear and missile tests to create space for diplomacy.
Chinese leaders are right to worry about miscalculation and unintended escalation, especially if a future North Korean test goes awry. But Washington and Seoul should not allow legal, necessary, and defensive exercises to become a bargaining chip for North Korea stopping illegal provocations. This is because suspension of exercises or THAAD deployment could drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States.
Instead, U.S. officials could suggest to Beijing that increased deployment of strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula (that tend to elicit angry responses from Pyongyang) would not be necessary if Beijing did more to strengthen and implement U.N. sanctions. The United States, South Korea, and Japan can jointly announce that if Pyongyang continues its tests, and further international measures are not taken to curtail the Kim regime’s earning of foreign currency and importing of energy, they will plan more trilateral military exercises, expand regional missile defense cooperation, and apply secondary sanctions on banks and companies helping North Korea to evade sanctions.
Such trilateral unity would show that Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs have failed to divide Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo, and would give Beijing an opportunity to make credible a diplomatic option that all parties prefer to military escalation.
Photo Credit: TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images