There are growing indications that North Korea is moving forward with plans for its first nuclear weapons test in over four years. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been on the rise lately, though this has been underreported in light of the war in Ukraine. Last week, Kim Jong Un promised to continue development of its nuclear weapons “at the fastest possible speed.” This has prompted concerns that a test will be scheduled to disrupt the late May visit of US President Joe Biden to South Korea. Chinese and South Korea diplomats met in Seoul on Tuesday with China pledging to play a ‘constructive role’ in attempting to get North Korea to resume negotiations.
South Korea, with a new administration taking power on 10 May, is quite interested in deterring North Korea from escalating the situation. One element that appears to be coaxing the North along the slippery path it’s on at present is Russia. Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin have forged close ties over the years and the North is one of the few nations supporting Russia in its war without misgivings. In exchange for this loyalty, Russia could return the favor by blocking a UN effort to impose severe sanctions on North Korea if it does move forward with a nuclear test.
Having said this, it must be mentioned that the global economic fallout from Russia’s adventure in Ukraine and the recent COVID-19 outbreaks in China could hit the North Korean economy especially hard. Supply chain issues now coming into play will exacerbate food shortages. Inflation will also play a greater role. Food prices in North Korea often mirror global prices. With food prices rising around the world, the North’s prices are expected to do the same in the coming weeks, taking the country’s economic issues from bad to worse in the process.
With oil prices continuing to surge, the Biden administration has been trying to gain the support of oil-rich nations to roll back oil prices and apply more pressure on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. The US is meeting significant resistance on both fronts from some of its allies in the Middle East. There’s mistrust in places like Riyadh and Abu Dhabi right now regarding the Biden administration’s priorities and intent. To put it in simple terms, there are many people of influence in the Saudi and UAE governments who consider the Biden Administration a fair-weather friend. It goes back to the war in Yemen, which was supported by the Obama and Trump administrations. But as the war became a humanitarian cataclysm, US opinion turned and one of the first acts of the Biden administration was a vow to end the war in Yemen and stop supplying Saudi Arabia with weapons.
Now in March, 2022, the United States wants something from its Middle Eastern allies and some are not very enthusiastic to help out. When President Biden attempted to arrange telephone calls with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, he was reportedly rebuffed. Naturally, US officials deny this and have tried to put a different spin on the matter. But the fact remains that Washington’s relationship with some of America’s Gulf allies is in need of repair at a critical time. Iran’s missile attack against a US embassy and airbase in Iraq over the weekend certainly showcases the Islamic Republic’s intent to be play the role of agitator in the region. Especially in light of the pause that JCPOA talks have taken due to the war in Ukraine.
China has reinstituted lockdowns in parts of the country amid a widespread surge in COVID-19 cases. Shenzen, China’s own silicon valley, is one city now under lockdown. Businesses have been ordered to suspend production operations and have non-essential employees work from home for a week. Shanghai and Hong Kong are two other major cities in China now dealing with major outbreaks. Case numbers are rising, but remain small compared to outbreaks in other nations back in late 2021 and early 2022 when the Omicron variant swept across the globe. A growing number of the cases in China appear to be of this variant.
The big concern now is additional instability for the global economy on top of what’s transpired from Ukraine. China’s COVID situation now adds more fuel to a fire which threatens to become dangerously bigger in coming weeks. The global economy will not stabilize by summer as some people had hoped.
With international attention focused on Ukraine and Russia, North Korea has taken advantage of the lack of scrutiny to conduct a series of ballistic missile tests so far this year. On 27 February and 5 March, a pair of intercontinental ballistic missile tests were conducted, raising concerns these tests represent a crash effort by the North to resume its nuclear program. Adding to the concern are recent satellite images that show a resumption of activity at North Korea’s nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri. A North Korean nuclear test could be in the cards sometime soon.
In response to the increased missile tests and activity, the US is conducting naval and air exercises in the area. The USS Abraham Lincoln and her battlegroup are in the Yellow Sea running very visible air exercises with land-based USAF aircraft from South Korea. Patriot missile batteries in South Korea are also running increased exercises and preparations in light of the activity up North.
While much of the world’s attention is focused on Ukraine and Russia, North Korea has conducted a string of missile tests over the last month. The most recent test firing came yesterday, and was the nation’s most powerful test since 2017. It was an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) that reached an altitude of 2,000 kilometers before descending into the Sea of Japan. The tests this month have defied the UN ban on ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests by North Korea.
Sunday’s test was condemned by Japan, South Korea and the United States. Aside from words of condemnation and warning, however, there has been no concrete response from regional powers or from the US. South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in did remark that this round of missile tests is similar to 2017 when the North conducted nuclear tests and fired powerful missiles, some of which flew over Japan.
As for the reason behind these tests, there are a variety of opinions floating around. Some colleagues believe the tests are a signal to the world. A demonstration of North Korea’s military prowess to create a position of strength from which Pyongyang can use to its advantage. Then there is the timing of these tests. The Winter Olympics are set to start soon in Beijing and the South Korean presidential election is scheduled for March. Kim Jong Un might want to influence both, or at the very least remind the world North Korea is still there.
While I believe the reasons above are viable theories, conditions in North Korea are likely the main driving force behind the January surge of missile tests. The economy continues to struggle from a combination of factors; economic sanctions, COVID-19, and thirty-plus years of gross mismanagement on every level. These have combined to place the government in a precarious position. Kim Jong Un might be gambling that the US and other world powers realize the North is growing desperate and needs relief before the situation comes to a head. North Korea has employed this strategy before without success. Why Kim Jong Un would opt to try again is unclear.
Concerted efforts are underway by the North Korean government and the nation’s northern neighbors to stave off disaster as a major food emergency threatens to become worse. The government is now encouraging citizens to consume less food through 2025, the year when the border with China will reopen. The border closed last year as a COVID-19 precaution and caused significant food shortages and turmoil. The absence of imports from China nearly collapsed the North Korean economy and food prices saw significant increases. Right now, it seems unlikely the border will remain closed until mid-decade, considering that freight traffic between the two countries is resuming shortly. North Korea relies on China for 90% of its trade.
The government in Pyongyang has laid blame for the continuing crisis on ‘factors beyond its control’ which prevent the North from achieving food self-sufficiency. Not surprisingly, the continuing economic sanctions by the US and UN are seen as the most significant obstacle. China and Russia are now engaged in an attempt to persuade the UN Security Council to ease sanctions. The draft resolution includes lifting a ban on some North Korean exports such as seafood and textiles, however, the likelihood of the draft finding support among the other security council members. A single veto will resign the draft resolution to the trash heap and send North Korea right back to square one.
By this juncture it has been made abundantly clear that North Korea is unwilling to take the one step that will make the sanctions permanently disappear, and that step is denuclearization. Pyongyang views its nuclear arsenal as the only thing standing between it and complete dissolution. Yet Kim Jong Un seems more ready to continue with the game of chicken at present, with little regard for the future. Kim’s shortsighted thinking could ultimately prove disastrous for North Korea.
North Korea is adopting a stringent position on the recent AUKUS security deal in which the United States and Great Britain will share nuclear submarine technology with Australia. Pyongyang has stated that it believes the deal holds the potential to spark a nuclear arms race and destabilize the balance of power in the Western Pacific. “These are extremely undesirable and dangerous acts which will upset the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region and trigger off a chain of nuclear arms race,” a North Korean foreign ministry official was quoted as saying by state media. “It is quite natural that neighboring countries including China condemned these actions as irresponsible ones of destroying the peace and stability of the region and the international nuclear nonproliferation system and of catalyzing the arms race.”
North Korea does not have nuclear-powered submarines and its inventory of platforms capable of delivering nuclear warheads is open to speculation. Therefore, the North really doesn’t have a dog in this race. So, why would it take the time to come out in opposition to the AUKUS deal if it has very little to do with Pyongyang? The answer to that is simple: Regional prestige. North Korea views itself as a major player in Asian geopolitics. In reality, the warnings by the North are little more than grandstanding and a ham-handed attempt to attract more attention to recent ballistic missile and alleged cruise missile tests. This latest round of weapons tests by North Korea attracted little attention from the United States, much to Pyongyang’s disappointment. Kim Jong Un’s regime is undoubtedly hoping its words will succeed where its missile launches failed.
As for the AUKUS deal, its plain to see that China is its intended target, not North Korea.