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The Korean Peninsula’s Arms Race Heats Up

The reality of a defiant nuclear North Korea has led Seoul to consider its own options.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
People watch a TV showing an image of a North Korean missile launch
People watch a TV showing an image of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on Sept. 15. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: North Korea and South Korea conduct new missile tests; the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia announce new defense pact; and ECOWAS leaders meet to discuss Guinea coup.

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Dual Launches Signal Arms Race on Korean Peninsula

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: North Korea and South Korea conduct new missile tests; the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia announce new defense pact; and ECOWAS leaders meet to discuss Guinea coup.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Dual Launches Signal Arms Race on Korean Peninsula

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula rose on Wednesday as North Korea and South Korea conducted missile tests within hours of each other.

As well as statements of military readiness, the launches also represent technological breakthroughs. North Korea’s ballistic missile launch is its first known rail-based test, a method that makes it more difficult for an adversary to track and destroy missile sites. While South Korea’s submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) makes it only the eighth country—along with China, France, India, North Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—to declare that kind of underwater-launch capability, and the first non-nuclear-armed state to do so. (Israel is also widely believed to have a nuclear SLBM capability.)

South Korea’s launch is part of the country’s long-term plans, but the speed at which it is developing its weaponry has been surprising. “The U.S. only removed missile restrictions on South Korea on May 21, and already they’ve launched an SLBM, so I think we do have an arms race on the Korean peninsula,” said Victor Cha, the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “In part it’s a manifestation of the fact that nobody expects any denuclearization any time soon.”

A number of factors are behind South Korea’s rationale for its latest test, Duyeon Kim, a Korea expert at the Center for a New American Security, told Foreign Policy: “North Korea’s SLBM test might have sped up Seoul’s motivation to achieve an SLBM capability sooner as a deterrent, which Seoul apparently believes can also be useful in dealing with other perceived threats from Japan and China.” The missile development is also in line with South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s policy of “military sovereignty,” a set of measures designed to reduce dependence on U.S. forces.

Waiting game. It’s unlikely that North Korea’s latest test will cause a change in the U.S. position. Sung Kim, the U.S. envoy for North Korea, on Tuesday gave Pyongyang an open invitation for talks just days after it had tested new nuclear-capable cruise missiles. “We hope the DPRK will respond positively to our multiple offers to meet without preconditions,” Kim said, using North Korea’s official acronym.

Nuclear options. The U.S. posture has led to criticism from South Korea’s opposition, which is fired up ahead of next March’s presidential election. Hong Joon-pyo, a candidate from the conservative People Power Party, told Bloomberg that “America is approaching North Korea in a naive way,” and he called for nuclear weapons to be redeployed in the country as a deterrent.

Failing that, Hong said, South Korea should develop its own weapon. His remarks are in line with the South Korean public: A recent poll found that support for developing a nuclear weapon is at almost 70 percent, up from only 55.6 percent in 2010.

What We’re Following Today

The awkward AUKUS alliance. Relations among the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom were strengthened on Wednesday at the expense of France after U.S. President Joe Biden, with British and Australian Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison (or as Biden referred to the latter:“that fella down under”) appearing virtually alongside him, announced a defense pact between the three countries. The partnership, dubbed AUKUS, aims to equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines and other advanced technology.

China’s Washington embassy said the effort smacked of a “Cold War mentality” and said countries “should not build exclusionary blocs targeting or harming the interests of third parties.”

The decision angered France, which had recently signed a defense partnership with the Australian government and was set to embark on a $65 billion submarine program. In a statement, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the move showcased “a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret.”

Referencing today’s release of the European Union’s Indo-Pacific strategy, Le Drian said the Anglophone countries’ decision “reinforces the need to make the issue of European strategic autonomy loud and clear.”

ECOWAS meets over Guinea coup. Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) member states meet today in Accra, Ghana, to discuss the situation in Guinea following a military coup earlier this month. Ghanaian Foreign Affairs Minister Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey said the summit, which includes seven heads of state, would allow members to share “their expectation of a civilian-led transition,” including what kind of timeline the group expects. 

The SCO summit. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an eight-member body that includes China and Russia, began a two-day summit today in Tajikistan, with Afghanistan expected to top the agenda. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is scheduled to attend as Iran campaigns to upgrade its status as a SCO observer to full-fledged membership. A planned meeting at the summit between Raisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been postponed, as the Russian leader is self-isolating after a coronavirus exposure.

Keep an Eye On

Japan’s next prime minister.  An influential member of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has thrown his support behind Taro Kono, the minister in charge of Japan’s vaccine program, in his bid to become the next party leader. Shigeru Ishiba’s endorsement makes Kono the front-runner for the LDP leadership, a role that would see him become prime minister at least until national elections this fall. Official campaigning for the party leadership begins on Friday, while votes will be tallied on Sept. 29.

El Salvador unrest. Thousands marched in protest in El Salvador on Wednesday in the first major demonstration against President Nayib Bukele’s government since he was elected in 2019. The protest coincides with El Salvador’s recent adoption of Bitcoin as legal tender, a move that has been met with glitches and acts of vandalism on special ATMs set up to handle transactions. Bukele has hailed the rollout as a success despite the protests, saying that over 500,000 citizens have used the cryptocurrency since its launch.

Odds and Ends

A man has handed himself into authorities in Australia after living for 30 years as a fugitive, lamenting Sydney’s strict coronavirus restrictions that had dried up any opportunities for him as a day laborer and left him destitute.

Darko Desic had originally been jailed in 1992 on a marijuana charge and given a three-and-a-half-year sentence. Fearing both deportation to then-Yugoslavia and further punishment for skipping military service there upon his release, Desic made an escape from prison and had been living around Sydney’s northern beaches before giving himself up on Sunday.

“He slept on the beach on Saturday night and said, ‘stuff it, I’ll go back to prison where there’s a roof over my head,'” a source told Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. Although Desic faces additional prison time for his escape, he may be safe from deportation: Immigration authorities granted Desic residency in 2008 after they gave up searching for him.

Correction, Sept. 16, 2021: A misspelling in the Ghanaian foreign affairs minister’s name has been corrected.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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