South Korea called for joint “nuclear exercises” with the United States for the first time on Monday. An announcement that follows a new series of ballistic missile tests by North Korea this weekend and a record 2022 in the field. Will tensions between the two Koreas soar?
Missile tests, again and again. The start of 2023 has a little aftertaste of 2022 on the Korean peninsula. North Korea, which had subscribed to serial shelling for nearly a year as part of its ballistic program, conducted a new short-range missile test on Sunday, January 1. The day before, Pyongyang had also closed the year with three more shots.
Additionally, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pledged Sunday that 2023 would be a record year, like 2022… only worse. He called for an “exponential increase” in North Korea’s nuclear arsenal this year, including the establishment of “mass production” of nuclear-tipped missiles.
North Korean drones vs. South Korean nuclear exercises
The North Korean dictator also specifically called South Korea a “target” in his speech. A semantic choice with serious consequences: Traditionally, the Pyongyang regime avoided this term because it was necessary to uphold the idea of ”the reunification of two fraternal peoples,” notes Christoph Bluth, an expert on the Korean Peninsula at the University of Bradford, in the UK.
But these last few days have brought their share of new elements that show that “we are in a very worrying situation,” estimates Danilo delle Fave, Associate Researcher at the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) Verona, an international collective expert on international security issues, who has worked on relations between the two Koreas.
First, there was Pyongyang’s dispatch of five drones into South Korean airspace on December 27, under the nose and beard of Seoul’s anti-aircraft defense system. “North Korea wanted to prove that it can succeed where its southern neighbor cannot yet, even though South Korea is technologically superior,” emphasizes Christoph Bluth.
South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol in particular made very belligerent statements in an interview published on Monday by the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo. He reiterated that his country must “actively prepare for a conflict” while assuring that Seoul intends to conduct “exercises”. [militaires] nuclear weapons with the United States”.
It would be an “unprecedented step” for both South Korea and Washington, stresses Danilo delle Fave. “Careful, that doesn’t mean that Seoul will soon acquire nuclear weapons,” warns Christoph Bluth.
These exercises consist of simulating a North Korean nuclear attack and preparing for the response, “both conventional and nuclear,” specifies Danilo delle Fave. Washington would train its Asian ally to assist it in deploying and conducting a nuclear counterattack on North Korea using American weapons from South Korean soil.
“It would be the first time that a country that is not a member of NATO [la Corée du Sud a le statut d’allié majeur non membre de l’Organisation atlantique, NDLR] benefits from such training in dealing with American nuclear weapons,” specifies the ITSS expert.
According to the daily Chosun Ilbo, Washington is “fairly open” to the prospect, which the US government has declined to officially confirm, the Portal agency reported.
Yoon Seok-yeol, President Too Muscular?
But the mere prospect of such exercises is both a provocation and a signal Seoul is sending to Pyongyang. It’s a way of “making North Korea understand that in the event of a bombardment there could very well be a nuclear response, even if South Korea doesn’t have any nuclear weapons,” notes Christoph Bluth.
It’s also a way to squeeze where it hurts Kim Jong-un the most. “One of the regime’s biggest fears in Pyongyang is that its southern neighbor will acquire nuclear capabilities,” says Danilo delle Fave. In that case, joint exercises with the United States would allow Seoul to flex some nuclear muscles while officially sticking to its non-proliferation WMD stance.
This announcement highlights Yoon Seok-yeol’s very aggressive stance towards North Korea since he took office in May 2022. “Yoon Seok-yeol’s conservative government has completely broken with the diplomatic candor of its liberal predecessor, and the current escalation of tensions is partly that Result of this much more vigorous approach to relations with North Korea,” said Danilo delle Fave.
Yoon Seok-yeol has even hinted that he intends to re-qualify North Korea as an “enemy” country in the national security white paper. A denomination that has been abandoned since 2018.
>> Also read: “North Korea vs. South Korea, the spiral of the arms race”
Seoul’s role in deteriorating relations between the two Koreas is rarely highlighted. But it often takes two to create such a crisis situation. Of course, Kim Jong-un doesn’t stop waving his rockets capable of hitting South Korea. But his South Korean counterpart is doing little to appease the North Korean dictator’s belligerent tendencies.
In fact, the North Korean head of state has been stuck with Donald Trump since the 2018 summit, Christoph Bluth believes. “John Bolton [ex-conseiller à la Sécurité nationale de Donald Trump, NDLR] laid down the principle that North Korea must completely dismantle its nuclear program before it can benefit from an easing of sanctions, which Pyongyang absolutely could not accept.
Given the intransigence of the Trump years and the priority that the Biden administration gave to Russia and China, North Korea decided to “increase pressure on South Korea in the hope that Seoul will pressure its American ally to soften its position on Pyongyang.” ‘ said Christopher Bluth.
Waiting for the incident?
But Kim Jong-un misjudged the three-cushion billiards: “Yoon Seok-yeol is not reacting at all as expected because, on the contrary, he is urging Washington to become more militarily involved in the region,” analyzes the expert from the University of Bradford .
The conservative South Korean president is trying to exploit the North Korean threat to get more American armor. “We are currently experiencing the militarization of South Korea,” concludes Christoph Bluth.
However, none of the experts polled by France 24 believe that this escalation in tensions could make the Korean Peninsula the next theater of open conflict. “North Korea cannot afford to go too far because it depends economically on China, which will not allow this to happen, and it knows that the United States has the means to defeat Pyongyang militarily,” summarizes Danilo delle Fave.
For him, the two countries are still playing a dangerous game. “The risk is that an unfortunate incident will cause the situation to spiral out of control,” he says. In this context, the intrusion of drones into this latent conflict only increases the risk of an accident with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Even if no accident occurs, the fact remains that this face-to-face between an ever-rapid ballistics-testing North Korea and an increasingly diplomatically intransigent South Korea risks “becoming the new normal on the Korean Peninsula,” fears Christoph Bluth.