Accept Reality of N.Korean Nuke Test, Policymakers Told

  • By Nina Pasquini, Chosun Ilbo intern reporter

    July 25, 2022 12:43

    South Korea should plan its North Korea policy bearing in mind that a nuclear test from North Korea is imminent, analysts said at the Asian Leadership Conference hosted by the Chosun Ilbo earlier this month.

    A nuclear test by Pyongyang -- which would be its seventh and the first since 2017 -- would mark a sharp escalation in an already tense environment. Already this year North Korea has launched an unprecedented 31 ballistic missiles, and it shows no interest in diplomacy.

    "Most people agree that it looks like North Korea has completed most of its preparations," said Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Commercial satellite imagery has shown that North Korea has completed work at its Punggye-ri testing site.

    "So what are they waiting for?" Cha said. "It could be something that [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un still wants to decide. Maybe it'll be in the aftermath of the next U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, or there could be some technical reason that's dictating the timing."

    Asked to predict when the nuclear test might take place, all agreed it was likely to happen before the end of the year. The test could happen "within 72 hours of Kim deciding to do so," added Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    Negotiation or other decisions by South Korea or the U.S. are unlikely to change Pyongyang's course since its process of weapons development is not "reactive," warned Markus Garlauskas of the Atlantic Council.

    "It's not the case that North Korea is reacting with its weapons testing to our exercises or military deployment or something that South Korea or the U.S. did," he said. "We can't be constantly self-restraining based on that pretext."

    One important response is increased cooperation and military readiness from the U.S. and South Korea, said Kim Du-yeon at the Center for a New American Security.

    "U.S.-South Korea combined military readiness has deteriorated over the last five years," Kim said. "Annual military drills have been reduced, and this was done at a time when North Korea has expanded its nuclear weapons arsenal -- particularly tactical nuclear weapons, the missiles that can target South Korea, Japan, and American bases in both those countries."

    She added that U.S. President Joe Biden and his South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk-yeol's plans to normalize military exercises are a positive development. She also recommended more visible public displays of American assurance.

    The speakers moved on to what might happen after a potential nuclear test. Cho Sung-min of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies predicted that China and Russia will veto any attempts at UN Security Council sanctions.

    "Whether China and Russia endorse sanctions or not, in South Korea and Japan there will be more open discussion of nuclear armament, at least at the civilian and scholar level, if not in the government," Cho added. "Since 2006, there have been nine Security Council resolutions and sanctions, and that has not stopped North Korea from conducting weapons tests. So South Koreans will look at alternatives."

    As North Korean nuclear capabilities increase, deterrence should focus on "denial" rather than preemption or punishment, Garlauskas said.

    "We need to focus on deterrence by denial," he said. "How do we convince North Korea and Kim Jong-un that using a tactical nuclear weapon will not advance his goals -- or, if anything, will make it less likely that the regime will be able to survive and achieve its goals?"

    Garlauskas also warned that the U.S. and South Korea must seriously consider the possibility that North Korea might deploy tactical nuclear weapons in battle. Unwillingness to consider this could send the wrong message.

    "That could be the very thing that encourages North Korea to think that using a tactical nuclear weapon might break the will of the [South Korea]-U.S. alliance," Garlauskas said. "We need to be prepared to absorb the blow from a tactical nuclear weapon and respond appropriately and not pretend that there's no chance that it could happen. We have to come to grips with this reality and be prepared to be resilient and respond strongly."

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