With Afghanistan now set in the rear-view mirror of the embattled Biden administration, North Korea could be stepping up as the next foreign policy challenge for the United States. Back in early July, the North resumed operations at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which had been closed since December 2018. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) noted the activity in a report released last week. “Since early July 2021, there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation of the reactor.” The Yongbyon reactor is capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. Its reactivation has stirred concern about North Korea taking steps to expand its nuclear arsenal. In fact, Pyongyang warned the US recently that it will resume and expand its nuclear program if the ‘hostile policy’ held towards the North by the United States is not withdrawn. This was a blatant reference to the continuation of US-South Korean military exercises and economic sanctions.
Resuming operations at Yongbyon could very well be a calculated step by North Korea intended to gain leverage in its struggle to remove the economic sanctions that the US has in place. Or could turn out to be a direct test of the Biden administration’s resolve in the aftermath of the Afghanistan withdrawal. Pyongyang might wish to see how far it can push the United States, moving on the assumption that the US is more likely to talk and compromise rather than adopt a decisive position on Yongbyon’s reactivation. If this is the case, a proposal might be coming from the North in the coming weeks.
The Israeli government admitted it was responsible for a 2007 airstrike on a nuclear reactor in northeastern Syria capable of producing weapons grade material. The attack was launched on 6 September, 2007. Eight Israeli Air Force F-15I Ra’am multirole fighters (essentially F-15E Strike Eagles) struck the reactor located in the Deir ez-Zor region and destroyed it completely. The nuclear facility was under construction when it was hit. A number of North Korean technicians and workers were among the casualties. North Korea and Iran were working with Syria to build the facility. There was widespread speculation at the time that Iran and North Korea helped to fund and construct the site in order to use it to produce weapons grade material in the future should their own facilities become unavailable. In the aftermath of the strike, Syria, Israel, and every other nation in the region kept quiet publicly about what had actually been hit. The truth was known, however, in capital cities from the Middle East to Washington DC and beyond. President George W Bush even mentioned the attack in his memoirs released in 2010.
Israel chose now to release the details about Operation Outside the Box, as it was officially know, to serve as a shot across Iran’s bow. Tel Aviv wants Tehran to know that Israel is willing and able to use force in order to prevent its enemies from acquiring nuclear weapons. The 2007 strike against the Syrian site, as well as the 1981 Osirak raid, serve as proof of the Israeli government’s commitment to the Begin Doctrine. Iran’s continuing quest to gain influence in Syria, coupled with last month’s Israeli military action against Iranian targets inside of Syria have made Israel reconsider whether or not Iran will abide by the boundaries that are currently in place to prevent armed conflict between the two nations.
Israel’s other motivation for releasing details about its 2007 action could be the increasing possibility of the United States walking away from the Iran nuclear deal entirely. At present, efforts to revamp the deal are underway, however, it appears unlikely a middle ground will be reached by US and European officials. In the event of the deal being scrapped, Israel is concerned with how Iran will respond. Reminding Tehran of Israel’s willingness to use force against its enemies nuclear ambitions may help deter Iran from resuming its nuclear program…..assuming they even stopped it in the first place.
The path leading to a future meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un more closely resembles a minefield. A myriad of potentially explosive obstacles and variables will have to be navigated around or defused if the potential meeting is to become a reality. All parties involved are moving into uncharted territory. Never before have a US president and North Korean leader met face-to-face. Rarely in the past has a US president met with the leader of an adversarial nation-state during a period of such heightened tension. The 1961 summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna is probably the last time anything like this took place.
One of the driving forces behind the Vienna Summit was Khrushchev’s desire to size up the young American leader early in his presidency and determine what he was about. Something similar is happening right now. President Trump’s approach to North Korea is decidedly different from how his predecessors dealt with Pyongyang and it’s left Kim Jong Un stymied to a large degree. The curved strategy and strongarm tactics he used successfully with President Obama, and that his father used with Bush and Clinton have not worked with the current US president. Trump has been far more confrontational and direct in his dealings with the North Korean leader. Kim’s initial response was to raise the ante even more. This, however, only exacerbated the situation more and placed North Korea at a disadvantage.
For the moment, Trump and the United States has the initiative. North Korea’s extended PR/Propaganda offensive has brought it back into the game, though it will all be for nothing if Kim Jong Un does not meet with President Trump and negotiate in good faith. This is the point when the big picture becomes murky because of those obstacles and variables I spoke of before. Kim can point to one of these factors and use it as a reason to call off the meeting, whether the reason is genuine or not. Anything from the logistics of the meeting, to the roles played by South Korea and Japan have the potential to act as justifications for Kim to cancel the meeting and accuse the United States of deliberately setting up North Korea to look bad.
With luck, as the next week or two go on, the level of North Korea’s sincerity can be determined. If it becomes clear that Kim is simply wasting everyone’s time with the prospects of a US-North Korean meeting, don’t be surprised to see Trump cancel. Ironically enough, this could very well be exactly what Kim wants. Given the byzantine nature of North Korea’s actions and strategies it is not outside the realm of possibility.
Although the 2018 Winter Olympics in Peyongchang have come to an end, do not expect world attention to be fully removed from the Korean peninsula at any point in the near future. Instead, the focus is going to shift one hundred and eighty kilometers to the northwest, beyond the DMZ to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. After two weeks of basking in the adoration of the global media, and reaping the benefits of its well-orchestrated propaganda, and charm offensive, Kim Jong Un’s regime has returned to reality. The problems facing North Korea and its government before the Olympics began are still there, and appear to be intensifying at a brisk clip.
The Trump administration has unveiled a new round of economic sanctions aimed at the North and its nuclear weapons program. The United States continues to push hard for a stronger global stance on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile inventories, and programs. The Pentagon, and White House are under no illusions about the primary purposes behind the Kim’s propaganda offensive. Pyongyang needs to path as many obstacles in the path of the US in order to prevent it from launching military action against North Korea. Even more so, the North needs time to bring its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities to the point where Kim Jong Un feels his nation will be invulnerable to US attack. Once a functioning ICBM mated with a nuclear warhead exists in the North Korean arsenal, that’s the ballgame in Un’s eyes. The US will back off, seek ways to coexist with Pyongyang, and, most important, treat North Korea as an equal among nations. In other words, this is Kim’s pipedream fantasy.
On Sunday, a North Korean delegate at the Olympics indicated his nation is open to possible talks with the US. There was no meeting between US and North Korean officials during the games. Before the opening ceremonies though, Vice President Pence was expected to meet with the North Korean representative, but the North cancelled the meeting at the last second. Now, it would appear that Pyongyang is dangling the prospect of negotiations in front of the US in an effort to make it appear to the world that the North Korean government is making a sincere effort to defuse tensions. Seoul is also pushing for US-North Korean talks. The sticking point is the inclusion of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the talks. The Trump administration has stated the subject must be addressed in any talks with North Korea, while Pyongyang, unsurprisingly, wants the subject to be excluded from future talks with the US.
In other words, North Korea has no intentions of ending its nuclear program, or halting development of an ICBM. Kim doesn’t expect negotiations with the United States to produce anything of value other than to buy more time for his nuclear and ballistic missile programs to reach the next level. And that has been the purpose behind North Korea’s actions for some time now.
Yesterday’s successful test launch of an ICBM has changed the US-North Korean equation permanently. Pyongyang is no longer an abstract threat to the security and wellbeing of the United States. It now possesses a missile capable of reaching targets as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. Pyongyang televisions earlier boasting today about a missile able to reach anywhere in the world is nothing more than bluster. However, given what has taken place in the last twenty-four hours it will simply be a matter of time before North Korea fields an ICBM with the range to reach the US west coast and beyond. Unless, of course, the United States can prevent it through diplomatic or military means.
The key question at the moment is: what will the US response entail? The US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, has requested an emergency Security Council meeting. It will likely be held Wednesday afternoon at the earliest. What will emerge from the meeting remains to be seen, but the Trump administration appears likely to try a diplomatic approach to North Korea before any other action is contemplated. Earlier today, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson promised that the US will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.
So, North Korea is the latest member to join the ICBM club. Tonight, a celebratory mood likely permeates the offices of Kim Jong Un. In his mind, he has pulled off a coup of historic proportions. Unfortunately for Jong Un and the nation he leads, his reality is skewered. The actions he is taking will not safeguard his nation from future US military action, as he hopes. In fact, yesterday’s test makes US military action more feasible. Jong Un is blissfully unaware, and it could very well be this ignorance that pushes the region into a devastating war sometime in the next three to four months.
*Authors note: With today being a holiday here in the US, I’ve kept this post is short. There is much more to talk about concerning North Korea so there will be more posts through the rest of the week*