With Biden distracted by Russia and China, North Korea is ready to confront the US
North Korea has just conducted its most significant missile test in years, to the alarm of many in the West. A Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) was launched on a lofted trajectory into space, before landing in the East Sea.
Despite Pyongyang’s self-declared cessation of all longer-range testing, this was its seventh test so far in 2022, and a stark reminder of its discontent with a United States that it considers to be refusing to negotiate with it on equal terms. It also demonstrates the inadequacy of the peace process led by outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has effectively had his hands tied by Washington.
On coming to office, the Biden administration did not make talks with North Korea a priority issue, which has caused Pyongyang’s patience to run out. Thus, as it always does, North Korea is aiming to force itself onto the agenda by manufacturing a crisis and actively ramping up tensions, recognizing that it can create a perfect storm for a presidency already overwhelmed by multiple foreign policy problems, including with Russia and China.
The solution? North Korea hopes it will be some form of compromise – but don’t expect common sense from the hawks holding Washington hostage over their obsession with nothing but complete denuclearization for Pyongyang.
For those familiar with North Korean affairs, this has been a long time coming, evolving in slow motion because of the disruption posed by the pandemic.
In early 2019, the Trump administration effectively ended all hope of an American breakthrough with North Korea after John Bolton convinced the then-president to abort his second summit with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi. The meetings between Trump and Kim effectively proved fruitless, because the White House could not accept the idea of compromising with a nuclear-armed North Korea and giving de-facto recognition to its capabilities. There was talk of ‘peace’, but the discussions were empty and unsubstantial.
This continued US pursuit of the complete denuclearizationof North Korea has become an obsession, and it represents an entrenched delusion that Pyongyang will, one way or another, surrender its increasingly extensive capabilities for the sake of relief from sanctions. Unlike Trump, Biden has not engaged with Pyongyang and is adopting the failed Obama-era approach of strategic patience, while dismissing Trump’s attempts at dialogue as morally unacceptable. Kim Jong-un sent many signals he was keen for negotiations to resume throughout 2020 and 2021, but these were ignored.
This is a gross misreading of a North Korea which perceives that the only way to deal with the US is to force an acceptance of it on its own terms through growing nuclear and missile development. This is the pinnacle of the state’s ideology, Juche, which places the preservation of national sovereignty as the foremost political priority. This includes the willingness to endure any hardship to achieve its ultimate goal in the long term, as opposed to accepting short-term gains which would bring interference and potential domination by another country.
Blanket United Nations sanctions, combined with a self-imposed exclusion from the outside world, have not deterred Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs at all. The country has struggled economically, but what would be considered capitulation will never be an acceptable price for relief. Now, the focus has returned back to confrontation, given Washington’s failure to engage.
Pyongyang has factored in the reality that the world is changing. Amid the US’ dual struggle with Russia and China, it recognises that both countries will be less willing to acquiesce to American demands in imposing further penalties on it, and so senses an opportunity.
In 2017, the Trump administration had sought China’s support regarding North Korea before it orientated US foreign policy against Beijing, knowing such cooperation would be impossible to secure within the context it was about to create. Biden, though, is making a key strategic error, as he still believes he can wage hostile policies against China but then court its cooperation on other matters. It’s a mistaken assumption, and Pyongyang can see how China is rebuffing it. America is still formulating foreign policy strategies in pursuit of unipolarity in a multipolar world.
As a result, Kim Jong-un considers Washington’s hand to be weaker than before, giving him the opportunity to push back with a view to forcing through his demands. That’s what the missile activity is all about. Each test has effectively been a warning to test the red lines of all the players around him, proceeding carefully, but moving further each time.
The solution would be for the US to compromise, but for many political and ideological reasons that remains off limits. The Americans’ fear is that accepting a nuclear North Korea – despite the reality of what that might actually constitute in practice – amounts to a form of appeasement which weakens the non-nuclear proliferation regime. Washington is also not keen to make concessions on its military presence in South Korea through facilitating ‘peace’.
However, the truth is the longer the US attempts to ignore North Korea or crush it with more sanctions, the more powerful Pyongyang will become, making it harder to contain the country’s capabilities through dialogue or arms control agreements.
It is easy to underestimate North Korea due to its poor economy, yet it is unquestionably moving forward in multiple areas, including hypersonic missiles. If no progress can be made using diplomacy, Kim will continue to pursue ICBM tests in the hope the missiles’ ability to reach the American territory of Guam might focus Biden’s attention.
Some might say, though, that it’s too late already. Effectively, Pyongyang has already returned to crisis mode and is rapidly escalating tensions. The more it is ignored, the harder it will push. The result is that Biden now faces hard choices as he pursues an overstretched foreign policy that is obsessed with affirming absolute hegemony over every frontier.
His mistake so far has been to assume that by focusing on China, he can simply put other issues on ice, ignoring the likes of North Korea as long as sanctions are in place.
Kim Jong-un has reminded him that you can’t do that. He is looking to box Biden into a corner with an ultimatum that he accepts a nuclear-armed North Korea for what it is, and negotiates with it. The alternative is dealing with an unhappy Pyongyang with a growing nuclear capability, which is a considerably worse scenario for American interests.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.