As the world pays close attention to Russia’s geopolitical aggression, another player is causing disruption on the world stage. To Russia’s south, North Korea has escalated its provocative behavior within the past month, and reached a high point this week.
According to NBC News, North Korea test-launched a record 23 ballistic missiles on Wednesday, alerting the country’s regional neighbors, including arch rival South Korea. One landed south of the buffer zone in the sea border between the two countries, marking the first incursion of its kind since the Korean Peninsula was divided during the Korean War in 1948.
Just earlier last month, North Korea launched a ballistic missile over continental Japan. It was the country’s first missile launch over Japan since 2017 prompting Japan to issue an alert to some citizens to take cover. The BBC reports that North Korea has additionally flown warplanes close to its border with South Korea, fired hundreds of shells of artillery into the sea and sent a merchant ship across the country’s sea border, causing both sides to fire warning shots.
So what has prompted these extreme measures? There are three reasons North Korea tends to launch missiles: to test and improve its weapons technology, to send a political message to the world and to impress its people at home and shore up loyalty to the regime. Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s regime clearly legitimizes their authority through military might rather than economic prowess.
North Korea cannot be allowed to continue their terrorization campaign. The United States’ current and past strategies have not been effective in preventing North Korean aggression, and will continue to be ineffective into the future. Some prior options are already off the table.
For starters, war is not the answer. The Council on Foreign Relations found that the exact size and strength of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal are unclear. However, analysts say Pyongyang has tested nuclear weapons six times and developed ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. and Japan and South Korea. In 2022 it is predicted that the country could have enough fissile material for more than one hundred nuclear weapons, and 200 by 2027.
The Arms Control Association reports that Pyongyang has an additional variety of lethal chemical agents and related missile and artillery delivery systems. They also rely heavily on robust hacking capabilities to secure state funding, evade sanctions and bludgeon enemies. A chemical, nuclear or cyber attack on Seoul or Tokyo would be devastating and quite difficult to prevent in the case of a full-fledged war.
The answer also isn’t to cozy up to Pyongyanag with love letters and fruitless diplomatic summits as the Trump administration did, nor is the Biden administration’s slow-but-steady approach a better alternative. North Korea may never give up their nuclear program in order to protect their regime, but that doesn’t mean that the issue should be sidelined.
Experts in Time Magazine urged the U.S. not to sit idle. While similar passivity led to the development of nuclear programs in Pakistan, India and Israel, North Korea is different. The country wants nuclear weapons for regime security and predation. They do not respect international order or law. If nothing is done North Korea will become even more threatening.
The Biden administration needs to assert more pressure on the Kim regime. There shouldn’t be a return to the “fire and fury” rhetoric of the Trump administration, but there should be consistent reminders of the consequences of dangerous actions. The “pragmatic” decades-long treatment of denuclearization has clearly not produced any notable progress.
It is also important that the U.S. punishes those who enable North Korea, as China does. For decades China has played a smoke-and-mirrors game on North Korea that traps the U.S. in doomed negotiations that spare Beijing a crisis on its border, but kicks the can down the road on the larger problem. They have also provided economic support through back channels.
The time has come for action. If North Korea remains unchecked they will receive the message that they can run amuck with little to no backlash. This is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.