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Global Perspective: North Korean provocation may strengthen Japan-ROK ties

By Masao Okonogi, Professor Emeritus, Keio University

    People watch a TV showing a file image of North Korea's missiles launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, June 13, 2022.(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

    In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Finland, which shares a long border with Russia, and its western neighbor, Sweden, have applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This is undoubtedly the most significant tectonic shift in European international politics since the end of the Cold War, as the Nordic countries are abandoning their long-standing military neutrality.

    On the other hand, in East Asia, China and North Korea are also direct neighbors of Russia, but remain friendly with Moscow. However, there was a clear difference in Beijing's and Pyongyang's initial responses: on March 2, at an emergency special session of the United Nations General Assembly, North Korea, along with Belarus and others, voted against a resolution condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine. North Korea's support for Russia stood out compared to China, which abstained. On Feb. 28, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman asserted that "the roots of the situation in Ukraine lie in the hegemonic policies of the United States and Western Europe."

    In fact, North Korea has repeatedly tested new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), using the invasion of Ukraine as a "tailwind," and on March 25, the reclusive country announced the successful test launch of the world's largest "Hwasong-17." The achievement was a must to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the birth of the late President Kim Il Sung, the founding father of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, on April 15, and to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People's Revolutionary Army with a military parade on April 25. Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council failed to adopt a new North Korea sanctions resolution due to the vetoes exercised by Russia and China.

    The North Korean leadership should have paid attention to the situation in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin's remarks related to nuclear weapons and learned much from them. In his speech announcing the start of the war on Feb. 24, Putin emphasized that "Russia today remains one of the most powerful nuclear powers in the military sphere" and on Feb. 27, he ordered the introduction of "a special combat duty regime in the Russian army's deterrence forces." The next day, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the nuclear force had switched to "enhanced combat alert."

    Now let me review North Korea's nuclear doctrine. After adopting "a new strategic line of advancing economic construction and nuclear arms construction in tandem" at the general assembly of the Workers' Party of Korea Central Committee in March 2013, the DPRK still maintained the "no-first-use" of nuclear weapons. At the 7th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) in May 2016, then First Secretary Kim Jong Un stated, "As long as aggressive hostile forces do not infringe on our sovereignty with nuclear weapons, we will not use our nuclear weapons first."

    However, this position began to change after the successful test-firing of a series of long-range missiles and the failed "Hanoi Deal" with U.S. President Trump. At the 8th Party Congress in January 2021, then Party Chairman Kim Jong Un backtracked on the no-first-use stance, stating, "We will upgrade our nuclear first-strike and retaliatory strike capabilities to accurately strike and destroy any strategic target within a 15,000 km range." Needless to say, he was referring to the "Hwasong-17" ICBM.

    North Korea's leadership has recently taken its argument for the first use of nuclear weapons to the extreme by seeing its conventional forces' inferiority in the Russian military's struggle in Ukraine. Unlike Ukraine, South Korea hosts U.S. forces and maintains an alliance with Washington. A prolonged war would result in a miserable defeat for the North Korean military. That is why North Koreans are probably discussing the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons in a local conflict on the Korean Peninsula, apart from the nuclear deterrence by the "Hwasong-17" against the U.S.

    This possibility was made clear in a statement by Kim Yo Jong, Kim's younger sister and deputy director of the party's central committee. She criticized the Republic of Korea's "preemptive strike" statement, saying on April 4 that if the ROK chooses military confrontation, "nuclear weapons will be mobilized to seize the initiative in the early stages of the war, and prevent prolonged fighting to preserve our military power." South Korea, she continued, "would have to accept a disastrous fate of destruction and near annihilation," adding, "This is not a threat."

    For those words to have any credibility, however, they need to be backed up by something substantial. In this sense, it is noteworthy that North Korea has made efforts to develop not only ICBMs, but also a hypersonic missile with an irregular trajectory similar to Russia's Iskander. On April 16, it also test-fired two new tactical guided weapons to confirm "the effectiveness of tactical nuclear operations." The next nuclear test will likely be aimed at developing tactical nuclear weapons.

    U.S. President Biden's visit to South Korea and Japan in late May reaffirmed that, apart from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the greatest threat to the U.S. and its democratic system is an authoritarian China, followed by nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, and presented efforts to counter those threats through alliances and regional cooperation. There were also expectations that North Korea would conduct a nuclear test to coincide with Biden's visit to South Korea.

    Therefore, it was natural that Biden's diplomacy in South Korea was based on the theory of "extended deterrence" (a nuclear umbrella) and Japan-U.S.-South Korea cooperation. As expressed in the joint statement, Biden pledged to defend the ROK with "the full range of U.S. defense capabilities, including nuclear, conventional and missile defense capabilities." He and South Korean President Yun Suk-yeol also agreed to resume the dormant "Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group" as soon as possible and discuss expanding the scope and scale of joint U.S.-South Korean exercises and training.

    The two presidents also stressed the importance of trilateral cooperation between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, affirming the importance of "responding to the DPRK's challenges, protecting shared security and prosperity, upholding common values, and bolstering the rules-based international order."

    Fortunately, the Yun Suk-yeol administration, which took office on May 10 after an intense election, has made the restoration of relations with Japan a priority foreign policy issue. In addition to Foreign Minister Park Jin, who is fluent in Japanese, the administration's foreign affairs and security officials include Kim Sung-han, head of the National Security Office, Kim Tae-hyo, the office's first deputy chief, and Yun Duk-min, the new ambassador to Japan, all of whom are well versed in Japan and support the U.S.-ROK alliance. Their prioritization of Japan-U.S.-ROK cooperation has probably undercut the rise of arguments in South Korea seeking the development of nuclear arms and "nuclear sharing" with the U.S.

    It is an ironic phenomenon that the war in Ukraine and North Korean provocations have demanded the normalization of Japan-South Korea relations on the common ground of the "extended deterrence" theory. However, this may be the first step for Japan and South Korea to overcome historical friction. While the clash between the two identities of Japan and South Korea in their disputes over history will continue to produce anger and hatred, a shared strategy between Tokyo and Seoul based on Japan-U.S.-South Korea cooperation will facilitate the formation of a new common identity.

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    Masao Okonogi was born in 1945. He served as dean of the faculty of law and politics at Keio University, and also as a specially appointed professor at Kyushu University. His specialties include international politics and contemporary South Korean and North Korean politics. He was the chairperson of the Japan-Korea Forum. He authored numerous books, including "The Korean War: The Process of U.S. Involvement" and "The Origins of the Korean Division: The Conflict between Independence and Unification" (Asia Pacific Prize Grand Prize).

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