Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

South Korea Stares Into the Nuclear Abyss

Stare, and the abyss stares back into you.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A missile is fired.
A missile is fired.
North Korea’s intermediate-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 lifts off from a launching pad at an undisclosed location near Pyongyang on Aug. 29, 2017. AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS VIA GETTY IMAGES

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Your two jetlagged hosts, Robbie and Jack, are here. Robbie is toasting cups of soju with South Korean journalists tonight (their time) while Jack is trying to turn back the clock to Eastern time after traveling around the world with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin—and looking for basketball player Klay Thompson’s lost Golden State Warriors NBA championship hat at the bottom of the San Francisco Bay.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: South Korea is sitting in limbo for North Korea’s expected nuclear test, NATO is set to beef up its defense forces amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and U.S. President Joe Biden picks a half-dozen new ambassadors.

P.S. Check out Flash Points, a curated selection of our very best long reads, in your inbox every Wednesday and Sunday.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Your two jetlagged hosts, Robbie and Jack, are here. Robbie is toasting cups of soju with South Korean journalists tonight (their time) while Jack is trying to turn back the clock to Eastern time after traveling around the world with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin—and looking for basketball player Klay Thompson’s lost Golden State Warriors NBA championship hat at the bottom of the San Francisco Bay.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: South Korea is sitting in limbo for North Korea’s expected nuclear test, NATO is set to beef up its defense forces amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and U.S. President Joe Biden picks a half-dozen new ambassadors.

P.S. Check out Flash Points, a curated selection of our very best long reads, in your inbox every Wednesday and Sunday.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


Seoul Waits on North Korea’s Nuclear Test

SEOUL—There’s a palpable sense of foreboding here in Seoul, where the consensus in foreign-policy circles is that North Korea launching a new nuclear test is a matter of when, not if.

North Korea’s latest test comes after months of radio silence between Washington and Seoul despite their public protestations that they are ready to talk. And the kicker, unsurprisingly, is there’s really nothing that the Biden administration or new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol can do to stop it.

To update a phrase often used regarding the war in Afghanistan, Washington and its allies may have the watches, but North Korea has the time. Each new ballistic missile test and nuclear test brings North Korean leader Kim Jong Un closer to having a full-fledged nuclear weapons deterrent and the capability to strike U.S. allies in the region or even the U.S. homeland.

While Jack is covering things in Washington, Robbie has spent the week in Seoul meeting with officials and experts on the security situation in East Asia. Out here, there’s broad agreement that Kim has no plans to pump the brakes on his country’s nuclear weapons program despite the country’s dire COVID-19 outbreak and looming food crisis from a prolonged drought.

“Internal variables will not affect North Korea’s plan to move forward with another nuclear test,” said Moon Chung-in, who was a top advisor to former South Korean President Moon Jae-In and is currently chairman of the Sejong Institute think tank.

There are two signs worth noting here that indicate a nuclear test is likely imminent: The first, and possibly clearest, sign is a steady drumbeat of satellite imagery tracking new construction activity and refurbishment at North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test facility.

The second, and perhaps more fuzzy, sign is North Korea’s appointment of Choe Son Hui as new foreign minister. Choe has extensive experience negotiating with the Americans on nuclear talks (including joining North Korea’s delegations at the summits between Kim and former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019), and experts believe her appointment signals that Pyongyang is putting her on standby to blunt the universal international condemnation and diplomatic fallout from a nuclear test.

The looming North Korean nuclear test is set to be a first major foreign-policy challenge for the conservative Yoon administration, which has sought to distinguish itself from the former Moon government by taking a more hawkish approach to North Korea and strengthening security ties with Washington.

It has also preemptively become a crisis-in-waiting for the Biden administration, which is currently laser-focused on the geopolitical fallout from the war in Ukraine.

New South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin, in a visit to Washington this month, said any North Korean nuclear test would be met with a “firm response” from both the United States and South Korea. “Pyongyang’s continuous provocations will only lead to strengthened deterrence of the alliance and stronger international sanctions measures,” he said.

North Korea has already shattered records for the number of ballistic missile tests this year, launching 31 missiles so far, compared to the past all-time high of 25 missiles in 2019. The steady pace of tests is the latest indication that North Korea’s nuclear and missile program is steadily advancing despite damaging international sanctions. If North Korea does end up conducting a nuclear test, it would be the country’s seventh such test since 2006 and its first test since 2017.

As one advisor to Yoon’s presidential campaign put it: “Kim Jong Un is not likely to let up any time soon.”


Let’s Get Personnel

U.S. President Joe Biden has nominated Arati Prabhakar to head up the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which would also make her the commander in chief’s top science advisor. Prabhakar previously headed up the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Biden has also tapped a smorgasbord of new ambassador picks—all of them career diplomats: Kristina Kvien as U.S. ambassador to Armenia, Robert Forden as U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Lucy Tamlyn as U.S. ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Randy Berry as U.S. ambassador to Namibia, Pamela Tremont as U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, and Manuel Micaller Jr. as U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan.


On the Button 

What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.

Supersize me. NATO appears ready to agree to the biggest expansion of its 40,000-troop alert force in the post-Cold War era at the 30-nation alliance’s Madrid summit next week, Sky News reports. The meetings could sextuple the size of NATO’s response force, giving the alliance added heft on its eastern flank and in the southeast as Russia’s saber-rattling has increased near Kaliningrad in recent weeks. Also potentially on tap: aid for Ukraine.

Grisly end. Ukrainian photojournalist Maks Levin and his bodyguard were likely executed by Russian troops in a forest near Kyiv in the first two weeks of the war after possible interrogation and torture, according to an investigation conducted by Reporters Without Borders.

Levin’s Ford pickup truck was still on the scene when investigators arrived more than two months after his murder as well as DNA traces indicating the presence of Russian troops. At least 15 journalists have been killed in Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.


Snapshot 

A tank is shown in a dusty landscape.

A Royal Moroccan Armed Forces tank drives in the Grier Labouihi region in Agadir, southern Morocco, during a joint military exercise with the United States and a dozen other countries on June 21.FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images


Put On Your Radar

Today: China hosts a virtual summit of the BRICS countries. That’s Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, in case you’re not tracking.

Sunday, June 26: The G-7 summit hosted by Germany is set to begin. Also making guest appearances: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Tuesday, June 28: NATO’s summit in Madrid is set to kick off.


Quote of the Week

“Summer will be hot for Russian occupiers. And the last one for some of them.”

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov welcomes the arrival of U.S.-provided multiple launch rocket systems to Ukraine today. 


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

War yogis. Ukraine’s war-torn city of Kharkiv rang in International Day of Yoga on Tuesday in style, Russian bombs and all.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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