Jun 23, 2022 - World

Looming North Korea nuclear test leaves U.S., South Korea waiting for bad news

Watching coverage of a 2017 North Korean missile launch from a Seoul train station. Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Watching coverage of a 2017 North Korean missile launch from a Seoul train station. Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

SEOUL, South Korea — Officials and experts in Washington and Seoul agree that North Korea is set to conduct its seventh nuclear test and its first since 2017 — likely quite soon.

The big picture: Kim Jong-un's regime continues to develop its nuclear arsenal and rebuff offers from both the U.S. and South Korea for dialogue or COVID aid.

  • Neither ally is prepared to offer unilateral concessions to break the deadlock. That's effectively rendered them bystanders, waiting for bad news.

In response to the rising threat, South Korea's hawkish new President Yoon Suk-yeol is focusing on strengthening Seoul's defenses and its alliance with the U.S.

  • "The seventh nuclear test is most likely. Our response will be very tough and hard, and that will heighten tensions on the Korean Peninsula," says Moon Chung-in, chair of the Sejong Institute think tank.
  • Moon says the U.S. and South Korea have little leverage to prevent a test and almost nothing left to sanction in response, leaving steps like joint military exercises and the deployment of additional U.S. military assets in the region.
  • "North Korea will respond in kind," says Moon, who served as a top adviser to Yoon's predecessor. The test for leaders in Washington and Seoul will be to break out of that cycle, he says, but that won't be easy.

The backstory: Former President Moon Jae-in repeatedly pursued diplomacy with Kim but ultimately failed — along with former President Donald Trump — to secure any significant progress on the nuclear issue.

  • Now, both Yoon and President Biden appear pessimistic about reaching any nuclear agreement.
  • "The Yoon government is open to dialogue with North Korea, but that does not mean that we're hurrying up to make a breakthrough," an adviser who worked on Yoon's campaign says. "We will be patient."
  • A ruling party lawmaker notes that both carrots and sticks were tried over the previous five years and "nothing worked."

Between the lines: The current limbo isn't entirely new. North Korea has combined diplomatic silence with nuclear provocations before, including during the "fire and fury" period that preceded the Trump-era summits.

  • But Pyongyang has already conducted a record number of missile tests this year and further alarmed South Korea by announcing the pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons, which could lower the threshold for a nuclear strike.
  • A recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 71% of South Koreans now support developing nuclear weapons domestically, rather than relying on the American nuclear umbrella. That won't happen anytime soon, but the poll reflects the sense of insecurity within the population.

The other side: Some experts in Seoul think Kim felt burned or even deceived by the U.S. after his summits with Trump yielded no sanctions relief.

  • The U.S. will likely have to take the lead if there's to be a breakthrough, a senior South Korean opposition lawmaker says, because Kim's appointments and rhetoric suggest he's emphasizing his dealings with Washington over Seoul.
  • Thus far, Biden has not prioritized North Korea or offered much beyond a standing offer for talks with no preconditions.
  • Meanwhile, China vetoed additional North Korea sanctions at the UN earlier this month and appears unlikely to join forces with the U.S. to ratchet up the pressure on its nuclear-armed neighbor.

What to watch: The North Korean regime may eventually return to the negotiating table, perhaps when it feels threatened or believes it has the upper hand.

  • But even if those talks do begin, few in Seoul will expect them to end with Kim surrendering his nuclear arsenal.
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