North Korea’s recent drills show west cannot ignore nuclear threat | north korea

In an overcrowded diplomatic nuclear space, the last thing the West needed to hear was that North Korea was back in business. It fired 25 missiles of various kinds on Wednesday – including one that landed close to South Korea’s waters, in what President Yoon Suk-yeol said was effectively “a territorial invasion by a missile”.

It was the first time since the 1945 division of the peninsula that North Korea weapons had landed so close to South Korea, 26km beyond the northern limit line.

With the New York Times reporting that US intelligence had picked up Russian military chatter about the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and the talks to prevent Iran building a nuclear bomb at a total impasse, a third nuclear front just adds to the sense of a world on the brink.

The possibility, now confirmed by Washington, that North Korea is also providing missiles to the depleted Russian forces in Ukraine only adds to the sense it will be hard to continue to park North Korea in the overflowing pending tray.

North Korea insists there is a rational logic to its actions, saying it was responding to Washington and Seoul mounting Vigilant Storm, the largest joint military drills in its history. These exercises, designed to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, involve 240 warplanes – including advanced F-35 stealth fighters – conducting about 1,600 sorties. The large-scale drills began on Monday and will run until Friday.

It now seems likely that North Korea will test a nuclear bomb for the first time since 2017, prompting some to argue that it is time for the US to recognize that North Korea is a nuclear weapons state.

North Korea lives in fear of an invasion, and it is not as if Kim Jong-un has hidden how he plans to prevent one. Last year he set out a five-year plan, explaining all new weapons that North Korea planned to develop. This included smaller battlefield nuclear bombs and the short-range missiles to carry them.

The recent round of tests and drills shows he is earnest in his intent, and there is nothing internal or external that is going to make him change his plans.

Analysts of North Korea, one of the most opaque countries in the authoritarian world, often disagree as to whether the leadership’s nuclear ambitions are driven by internal or external factors. One argument is that Kim’s ultimate goal is to create a crisis he can offer to defuse in return for concessions on sanctions or trade deals. The other school says this underplays the extent to which North Korea’s leaders are driven by fear of domestic economic failure.

The Peterson Institute of International Economics on 28 September reported that North Korea was locked in the worst crisis of food insecurity since the great famines of the mid-1990s and concluded that in the most recent harvest cycle, a mixture of inadequate water and Covid restrictions meant North Korea had “probably fallen below the level of minimum human needs”, partly due to rises in the price of grain.

Whatever the motive, it leaves President Yoon’s “audacious plan” unveiled on August 15, setting out the benefits North Korea would receive in return for a denuclearization program, looks even more of a dead letter. There had been high hopes for the plan: to distinguish it from previous incarnations, the Yoon government had indicated that South Korea could offer food aid in the early stage if North Korea returned to the denuclearization talks even before it took concrete steps. The immediate US backing for South Korea’s plan added another incentive, raising the hope that some kind of partial sanction relief could be possible for North Korea.

But the plan was rejected by Pyongyang on the grounds that it was largely a recycling of previous offers that would have denuded the country of its security. No-one would trade away their destiny for corn cake, Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, decreed.

So Washington is waiting to see if North Korea will revive its nuclear test program, and has only limited options if it does.

The IAEA director general, Rafael Grossi, said last week: “Everybody is holding its breath about this, because another nuclear test would be yet another confirmation of a program which is moving full steam ahead, in a way that is incredibly, incredibly concerning, Further tests, of course, means that they are refining the preparations and the construction of their arsenal.”

So the world now faces the prospect of one rogue state in Asia, and another theocratic state in the Middle East coming closer to possessing a nuclear bomb than ever before, and at the same time a cornered nuclear superpower actually threatening to puts its arsenal to use .

It is not the best backdrop for Joe Biden’s run-in to the midterm elections.

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