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How many missile tests will it take before Biden gets his head out of the sand on North Korea?

Tom Fowdy
Tom Fowdy

is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.

is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.

How many missile tests will it take before Biden gets his head out of the sand on North Korea?
No matter how hard the US pushes for denuclearisation in North Korea by way of tougher sanctions, it won’t happen. This week’s events show that, despite undoubted hardship, Pyongyang is actually upping its military capabilities.

On Tuesday morning, North Korea tested what was described by South Korea as a “submarine-launched ballistic missile” (SLBM) that was analysed as travelling 450km (280 miles) at a maximum height of 60km. 

The launch was specifically timed to coincide with a visit by a US envoy to South Korea. Over the past few months, Pyongyang has steadily tested a number of weapons which have included cruise missiles and a new hypersonic missile. This specific SLBM was only unveiled at the beginning of this year during a military parade, illustrating that, despite difficult economic conditions, North Korea has continued to advance its ballistic missile capabilities at a time when Joe Biden’s administration is effectively ignoring the issue and sticking to the standard line of ‘complete denuclearization’ without closely engaging the country. 

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This development shows the growing problem with that position. Focused overwhelmingly on his efforts to contain China, Biden isn’t truly interested in North Korea, and he has sought to compensate for that by lifting the controls put on the development of South Korea’s own capabilities (a deliberate move against Beijing too). However, the mistake he is making is employing no strategy whatsoever in the assumption that the issue will go away by itself.

Amid all this, Pyongyang is not going to sit tight. North Korea has little to lose, and for every moment Biden chooses to wait and do nothing, Pyongyang is demonstrating clearly that it is moving the military goalposts forwards, upping its capabilities against the odds, and making an eventual resolution even more difficult. 

For many years now, the conventional policy line in the US has been to demand ‘complete denuclearization’ of the Korean peninsula – a requirement that North Korea discards all of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs in line with what United Nations resolutions have demanded. 

In trying to achieve this goal, the US has pursued tougher and tougher sanctions on North Korea, amounting to an almost complete embargo of financial, logistical, military, and export-based transactions with the country. 

So far, successive US administrations have avoided making any compromises on these tough measures. There is a belief that Pyongyang should completely adhere, in an “all or nothing” approach which calculates that North Korea will eventually acquiesce to long-term American pressure.

Donald Trump briefly toyed with the idea of a compromise deal in Hanoi in early 2019, but he was overruled by then-National Security Advisor John Bolton at the last moment, and the rest is history. Since that time, Biden has continued with the same approach, but discarded the element of Trump’s high-profile engagement and delegated North Korea responsibilities to low-level envoys.

However, this is a longstanding strategic error. Sanctions are not compelling North Korea to change, and nor are they slowing down its advance in missile capabilities. Pyongyang’s strategic policy – as underscored by the country’s Juche ideology – is to engage in a struggle against the odds in order to achieve gains on its own sovereign terms, leveraging all available national resources. And it is more than willing to place costs on its own population to do so. It is ideologically inconceivable for North Korea to capitulate to American terms and conditions, not least when it deems its own survival is at risk in such a scenario. 

Instead, Pyongyang’s long-term goal is to develop the country’s capabilities to the point where the US is forced to accept its nuclear status on its own merits, and subsequently drop what it describes as “the hostile policy” against it.

North Korea believes that the only way to gain this acceptance is through the creation of a credible deterrent, something that can respond to the overwhelming threat of US force which has long loomed over it. As a result, sanctions simply do not work. During the pandemic, North Korea even voluntarily sliced off its entire ties and trade with the outside world – yet it still kept steadily advancing its ballistic missile development, showing that more pressure is not a strategy or a solution. 

There is a popular North Korean song called 'Korea does what it is determined to do' and it perfectly reflects the mindset. As such, Pyongyang set out its military plans at the beginning of this year and is working towards them – and that means hypersonic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and the ambitious proposal to build a nuclear-powered submarine. 

Yes, these advances are coming against the odds, and are surprising military analysts. But what will the US do? Biden seems to believe these developments can simply be ignored, and is not likely to give this latest stunt a meaningful response.

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Whilst Kim Jong-un has carefully avoided creating a crisis and has even produced several overtures to seek dialogue – for example, recently restoring military hotlines with the South – the more the US waits and kicks the can down the road, the more North Korea will slowly up the tempo and force itself on to the agenda. 

As a result, Biden would be best dropping the fantasy of ‘complete denuclearization’ and seeking a pragmatic compromise, because it should be quite obvious that, despite excruciating economic conditions, Kim’s hand against the US is growing stronger and he is keeping up with the South in creative ways not thought possible. North Korea is a country that likes to defy the odds, and it will continue to do so.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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