The recent flurry of missile tests by President Kim Jong-un of North Korea in a show of defiant standing further upended the calculations of regional balance of power, with the latest ballistic missile test that was launched towards the east coast just days before the swearing in of President elect Suk-yeol of South Korea meant to present a stronger message. The sabre rattling with a total of 14 weapons tests so far this year with the Hwasong-17 launch being the most impactful reinforces the range of strategic manoeuvres by Kim in trying to reassert dominance in security spectrum and cost benefit calculations in his immediate need for assurances and survival.
Although critics have argued on the real success of the Hwasong-17 ICBM which is touted by Pyongyang as its crème de la crème with its longest duration on air and the farthest range of manoeuvrability which in theory is capable to deliver multiple warheads to anywhere in the continental of the US, the operational success in these ventures further up the ante in regional fear and the subsequent retaliatory moves, with Seoul and Tokyo were the first to get the jitters and a flurry of responses were initiated.
Kim in his assertion for pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons and escalatory nuclear development with this major shift of strategic deterrence to first use preventive tools forms a new basis for him in disregarding the overtures by the West and the south. In strengthening Pyongyang’s nuclear tactical capabilities in the fastest time frame and with the threat to use it first hands if provoked, Kim desires to give a clear message and warning to Seoul in stopping its early counter-measures and precedence setting, with simultaneous messages to Washington that sanctions should and must be stopped along with the joint military drills.
Additional capabilities continue to be strengthened by the theoretical ability to accommodate higher volumes of nuclear warheads in enabling the delivery of nuclear explosive power covering the entire continental United States, compared to geographical limitations in Alaska and Guam previously. While critics and analysts continue to be sceptical of the true capabilities of the Hwasong-17, Kim’s new strategy shifts the region’s counter-reactions to a new level of risk that will invite changes in the dynamics of the military spectrum. Nuclear brinkmanship is seen and touted as more effective in restraining the counter measures taken, at least the scale of them. Whether it is a worthy experiment or otherwise, it warrants a needed shot for Kim.
In other words, the old dogma and line of deterrence by the coalition no longer hold water, at least for Kim’s new awakening. Past containing strategies are now being used by Kim against the three parties. Regional wariness on the looming threats by the Axis of Autocracies as termed by critics with the new-found strength and consolidation of support in the structure of Moscow-Beijing-Pyongyang in capitalising on certain shared interests is further compounded by its internal inability to mount an equal level and effective deterrence. While regional players were temporarily relieved by Biden’s pivot to normative assurance and alliance solidification, the actual terms are deemed insufficient, and worries abound on Washington’s long-term staying power with potential changing policies in the future under different presidencies. Increasingly, they are keen to align more closely and openly with key players and Washington in signalling a clear and measurable deterring and counter actions under an expansive nuclear and conventional security umbrella.
Threats and counter threats involving nuclear annihilation in the peninsula have already created jitters even before long term solid containment measures can be drafted. Suk-yeol has already opened the floodgates to further deterioration of the regional security climate with his defiant stance for a more hard-line and hawkish deterrence against Pyongyang, with a series of defensive postures with alliances forged with Tokyo and Washington and hopeful for more assurances of defensive support from Washington which his delegations have requested during their visits to the US and a line of moves in garnering further support from regional players.
Although he won by a thin margin from a neck and neck race with his Democratic rival, he realises that conventional methods of dealing with Jong-un do not yield the intended results, with even worse implications for Seoul’s security assurance. The efforts and policies in the past to please Kim and in practising strategic patience in dealing with Pyongyang seem to be a utopian and futile strategy for Suk-yeol. It is this reason for his promise in his campaigns in requesting for the redeployment of American nuclear capacities should conflicts flare in the peninsula. He also sensed the prevailing sentiment of the public where many would opt for hosting American nuclear weapons in putting to rest the deficiency of counter threats and deterrence that Seoul is in possession now.
It remains to be seen whether the bold risk taken by Suk-yeol will be effective or to backfire. Of pertinent interest will be whether Kim will actually take the deterrence posed seriously or will it only antagonise him in warranting further irrational actions and to undertake pre-emptive strikes in cancelling and preventing the supposed pre-emptive strikes by Seoul. With his hawkish and conservative agenda in shaping relations on the peninsula, he believes in integrated and consistent pressure on Kim in hopes of squeezing and closing the new routes Kim was trying to shape. His objectives did not seem to bring the desired results, with Kim seemingly immune and undeterred and further. Backfiring has already occurred with the new doctrine of nuclear usage by Kim that goes beyond conventional wisdom to more effective and realistic tools of arbitration and offensive power projection.
Strategic ambiguity no longer remains the useful option. Regional and global geopolitical twists remain centred on the supremacy of national strategic interests and security as well as national survival. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The bigger enemy will force me to make a temporary alliance with my smaller enemy. This is seen in Kishida and Suk-yeol’s desire to continue to forge closer ties and preparations to deal with Pyongyang in particular and Beijing in general, ready to cast aside historical tensions at least for now.
With bigger eyes on Beijing in ultimate terms, Tokyo has long started a calculated response to the ongoing and worsening threats from both Pyongyang and Beijing. The recent 2+2 engagement with Manila involving foreign and defence overtures and the strengthening of defence ties with Canberra, coupled with the recent regional tour by Kishida signals the overarching responses by Tokyo in intensifying resilience and capacity measures against both Pyongyang and Beijing. Defensive alliance with Canberra in bilateral structure as well as strengthening its QUAD commitment remain the central pillar for Tokyo, further backed by persistent and clear foreign policy of hard deterrence against Beijing, Pyongyang and Moscow by Prime Minister Kishida. Past courting with Moscow under his predecessor’s policies is practically put to bed with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, with Kishida keen to ensure that Tokyo remains aligned with the West’s push amidst ensuring its continuous support for Tokyo’s bigger threat from Beijing and Pyongyang. Increasing assertive postures by the Kremlin in the disputed regions in the Kuril Islands and its growing focus in its Eastern side further fuelled the impetus for Kishida to maintain the hawkish pressure.
The growing threat level has further pushed the talks for Japan to host American nukes to complete the strongest nuclear deterrence. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued for this, using the case of Ukraine for having failed to have a nuclear deterrence in allowing the Kremlin to undertake the invasion. While the prospects remain slim for now, the Liberal Democratic Party has already initiated internal discussions on further bolstering nuclear deterrence. Prime Minister Kishida in his initial reaction dismissed the proposal in maintaining the long-standing nuclear principle in setting that no nuclear weapons will be produced, hosted and owned by Japan. Growing gap and threat with changing public sentiment will see a fundamental shift in this in the near future.
Beijing is deeply apprehensive of the military drills and manoeuvres by Tokyo and Seoul involving Washington, seeing these as a pretext for targeting Beijing ultimately and its potential move on Taiwan. The US THAAD missile defence installation in South Korea continues to be fiercely opposed by Beijing, with previous punitive sanctions imposed on Seoul in 2017 with wariness on its radar capacities and in tracking Beijing’s manoeuvres. The significant presence of US power projection in that country, whether defensively and deterring in nature or otherwise will always remain a thorn in President Xi Jinping’s bargaining, a point underscored by the reality that Washington will only continue to bolster its arming capacities and ally-support enhancement for Tokyo, Seoul and strategically Taipei. It is worth noting that Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek is America’s largest overseas military base with the most active airfield in the Pacific. As much as Beijing is hopeful for Kim to rein in his provocations and assertive moves, it would still very much rely on Pyongyang as a powerful bargaining tool with the West and will continue to extract the positives for now.
It is as much certain that Xi will not give up Taiwan as will Kim in not giving up his powerful nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrence and exerting power, at least in the near term. Unless clear, committee, collective and measurable assurances and guarantees are given, at the same time in terms that are not violating the long term survival of Kim’s regime, it is hard to foresee he will erode his only powerful deterrence at his disposal.
The US presidency is another factor to consider, with arguments that Kim is forced to play into the hands of Trump with his unique no holds-barred approach, and that in facing Biden, he is forced to again resort to past proven effects of this escalatory threats for greater returns in seeing no clear differences or unconventional measures from Biden. During the attempts to straighten out the positions under Trump, Kim foresaw the once in a lifetime opportunity to seal the ultimate breakthrough, but the cost-risk calculations were too lopsided for Washington to continue.
While Kim calculates that he can still rely on Xi and Putin, he is also observant of the fact that he is increasingly being used as an effective tool in their own strategic and calculated peripheries in their dealings with the West. Xi is increasingly pressured to play his greater part in reining in Kim and has had enough problems with Ukraine and Russia being used as the battering ram in further cornering his options and expectations. He would not want a further dilemma and worse, an irrefutable excuse for the West to increase its foothold and justification in bringing the entire military might to its doorstep as a result of Kim’s erratic moves.
Kim wants to be different and to stem his own legacy in aiming for a final peaceful breakthrough, but he realises that he needs Western nodding in giving him the face-saving transition and the last say to portray to the nation that Washington somehow acknowledges the wisdom and strength of the Kim regime in coming to this compromise and peaceful conflict resolution. In this regard, Kim believes he has time on his side unlike China’s Xi, with his youth and ruthless displacement of others who challenge him and an unhindered free hand in dictating policies with the support of his handy elites led by his sister Yo-Jong. The long game is his to lose, and along the way, outlines further goals to bolster his military capacities particularly in enhancing the accuracy and range of his missiles and also targeting next frontiers with the likes of nuclear submarines and multiple warhead capacity of his ICBMs.
The reality at hand does not seem to be rosy as in Kim’s projection, however. He faces both internal and external squeezes with the full-blown impact from climate challenges and a strengthened alliance of democracies and the Western order in threatening to upend internal food security and external survival. With rising inflationary pressure across the world and the squeeze in food sustainability and security, the reverberations and long-term impact will not escape the periphery of North Korea, no matter how isolated it claims to be. As time drags on, there is only so much Pyongyang can prepare for the long ball game of withstanding the natural chain effects of the non-traditional threats that will persistently pose problems for his populations more than him personally.
There is also only so much momentum and progress that he could caulk up in sustaining an effective and trusted first strike capacities and at the same time stalling the second-strike readiness and capabilities in leaving them vulnerable to first strike counter measures from Washington or even Seoul. This will render Pyongyang’s nuclear deterrence and its long held first strike threat to be less lethal and more obsolete, giving greater space for the West to act further. The prospects of deterrence and MAD (Mutually Assured Destructions) will also greatly diminish in the long run as Washington develops a better and more holistic interceptive capacity with its unrivalled technological and military advancement which will provide better first strike prevention and an enhanced second-strike impact that will render Pyongyang’s past mechanism to futility. This signals that time certainly is not on the side with Jong-un and that the window for greater dialogue, engagement and diplomacy is fast closing in terms that will be beneficial for him in the long run.
Pyongyang continues to shift the gear in its newfound momentum in pushing forward the capacity for its escalatory offensive deterrence. It might use the next nuclear test in claiming the ability to build smaller warheads that will be able to be fitted on larger missiles including the capacity for a multi-warhead ICBM. These solid fuelled smaller missiles, which will be easier to remain hidden and to be manoeuvred,will give further advantage to Pyongyang by making them more difficult to be targets for pre-emptive destruction.
The next step in further polishing Pyongyang’s nuclear fortitude and tactical capacity with the progress in launching methods from submarines and deepening ICBM capacity in the near future reflect Kim’s desire and strategy to move away from the cocoon previous dogma. The goals will be to outmatch and outrun its southern neighbour in particular in the impending arms race especially in ensuring that it remains the clear winner in the nuclear gap while at the same time forcing Washington to change its sanction-based deterrence and archaic dependency of ties with Seoul as the main framework of negotiating from the position of strength.
Moving forward, Kim will stick to his strategy and desire in playing the dual game of bolstering his nuclear progression while ensuring internal economic resilience and growth, with no clear signs he will pivot away from his nuclear baggage which still forms his biggest insurance and guarantee for his internal and external survival. The next nuclear test is only a matter of when, not if. The rationale for such a move, at least in Kim’s view, warrants the subsequent international condemnation and sanctions and further narrowing the path for conciliatory dialogue and openings. Like Putin, he has long tasted Western sanctions and retaliatory responses with seemingly little detrimental and hindering effects. He can still count on Xi and Putin for now, but as the cost-benefit fulcrum increasingly tilts towards jettisoning Pyongyang for their own national needs and survival and coupled with the inescapable multi-pronged challenges to his nation’s survival, he might recalibrate his strategic manoeuvres and to grab the opening for a stunning transformation twist which will stem his legacy in a different realm. Or he might be tempted to remain defiant and to stay on to the last straw of MAD. The rest of the world certainly roots for the former. Only time will tell.
*Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya, the top university in Malaysia for more than 9 years. His areas of interests include strategic and security studies, American foreign policy and power analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.