Over the years, moments of tension with North Korea have always come and gone, but a cursory look at the situation right now on the Korean peninsula would show that the situation is the most volatile it has ever been in the past decade, with signs that things could deteriorate even further. The question that has been on everyone’s lips is, ‘what is Kim Jong-un up to?’ The answer to this question isn’t as farfetched as you might imagine. In fact, it is relatively straightforward.
Anytime North Korea appears to go on a missile test, the rest of the world simply shrugs and moves on disinterestedly. In the past month, North Korea has committed numerous hostile and provocative acts, including launching a missile over Japan, flying warplanes close to its border with South Korea, launching several ballistic missiles, launching hundreds of shells of artillery into the sea, which have landed in a military buffer zone created by the two Koreas in 2018 to keep the peace, and committing other subtle acts of aggression.
It is really hard to imagine that the two countries are not now at war. Recently, a North Korean merchant ship breached the sea boundary between the two countries, prompting both sides to fire warning shots at each other; South Korea believes this was a deliberate act.
From every indication, North Korea appears to be launching these offensives for three cardinal reasons; one is to send a political message to the world (primarily the US). Another is to test and improve its weapons technology, and a third reason is to impress its people at home and shore up loyalty to the regime.
Reaching a conclusion on which of these ends Pyongyang’s actions serve may be difficult to decipher but lately, Mr. Kim has been explicit. On several occasions, State media has reported that the recent drills and missile launches are in response to military exercises being carried out by the US, Japan, and South Korea. Kim has continued to heap the blames on its enemies accusing them of escalating tensions while maintaining that its launches are a clear warning they should stop.
For the past two months, Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul have been holding large-scale military exercises, separately and together- a clear indication that they will not be caught unawares in the case of a nuclear attack from North Korea. This situation has been quite tricky because it appears to be further antagonising Mr. Kim at every turn. He has continued to see such exercises as that of his enemies simply preparing for an invasion. In fact, he has maintained that the primary reason he began building nuclear weapons in the first place was to thwart any invasion plans against his country.
Depending on which side of the divide you’re on, you may agree or disagree with Mr. Kim, but it appears there’s a less obvious reason he’s applying pressure now.
Quite a number of analysts believe that he may be preparing the ground for a more provocative test and the potential detonation of a nuclear weapon for the first time in five years, or even a small-scale attack on South Korea. Any of all of these will come with grave consequences and this explains why the tension appears much heated up.
Right now, the world has gone past the stage of guesses. Just last month, Kim confirmed that North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and will never give them up no matter the pressure from its enemies or sanctions from the international community. He has consistently continued to stress that the move was very much ‘irreversible’. To exemplify how determined his resolve is, he has posited that the weapons represent the ‘dignity, body, and absolute power of the state’ while declaring that Pyongyang will continue to develop them ‘as long as nuclear weapons exist on Earth.’ Considering the fact that Kim, who, although may not be a stranger to issuing wild threats and speaking in colourful language, has already signed the vow into law, it should certainly raise some degree of worry. Also, bearing in mind that Kim is a dictator who cannot be voted out of power and does what he says he will do, the world may want to try a different approach.
To show how serious Mr. Kim is taking things, this year alone, North Korea has staged a record number of missile launches, some say more than 20. All these dicey moves have now seen a growing number of experts coming out to question the tactics deployed by the US, South Korea, and Japan.
Many experts believe that now is the time to call a spade a spade and accept that North Korea is in fact a nuclear state. If not for anything, doing so would entail giving up once and for all, the optimistic – some might say delusional – hopes that Pyongyang’s program is somehow incomplete or that it might yet be persuaded to give it up voluntarily.
Apparently, Mr. Kim, now wants some form of attention. If he hopes to one day have tough international sanctions lifted against his country, he needs the world to recognise the progress he has achieved. As intended, sanctions have not prevented North Korea from building weapons, but they have harmed its economy.
From every indication, talks aimed at reducing those sanctions instituted years ago have long stalled and North Korea appears to be slipping down the global agenda and this is worrisome on its own. From all indications, the world is far more concerned with the war in Ukraine, and the rise of an authoritarian China. For President Biden, his position that sanctions on North Korea can only be eased when it agrees to give up all its nuclear weapons has remained unchanged ever since he came into office. But will Kim ever accept to do so? The answer is closer to a ‘No’ than it has ever been to a ‘Yes’, Mr. Kim must be handled with tact and care because that’s the most pragmatic thing to do given the present circumstances.