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ANALYSISExperts see growing chances for arms control talks amid NK's rising belligerence

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-Sup participate in a news conference at the Pentagon on November 3, 2022 in Arlington, Virginia. Following North Korea's launch of three short-range ballistic missiles into the oceans off its east coast, South Korea's Lee Jong-Sup is meeting with the United States' Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. AFP-Yonhap
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-Sup participate in a news conference at the Pentagon on November 3, 2022 in Arlington, Virginia. Following North Korea's launch of three short-range ballistic missiles into the oceans off its east coast, South Korea's Lee Jong-Sup is meeting with the United States' Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. AFP-Yonhap

Developing nukes will be politically difficult path for Seoul

By Kim Yoo-chul

The skies over the Korean peninsula came within inches of becoming the scene of a supersonic dogfight last week after 80 South Korean fighter jets, including an unspecified number of F-35A stealth fighters, were scrambled to intercept 180 North Korean warplanes that flew dangerously close to the inter-Korean border.

The latest incident illustrated just how tensions continue to escalate on the Korean Peninsula, with military and security experts voicing concerns that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is veering closer to a high-level demonstration of his regime's military strength amid geopolitical uncertainty represented by deepening conflicts between the United States, China and Russia.

The North's rare display of airpower came as Operation Vigilant Storm, which continued from Oct. 31 to Nov. 5, brought out a total of 240 South Korean and U.S. fighter jets with heavy opposition from North Korea. During the joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States, North Korea fired 30 missiles.

Now, the North is feared to extend its most intense period of missile testing.

Intelligence officials and security experts in the United States and South Korea said a seventh nuclear test conducted by Pyongyang would increase the likelihood of Washington and Seoul taking stern actions against the North. Ned Price, a U.S. State Department spokesperson, told reporters that there would be profound costs and consequences if North Korea conducts another nuclear test, although he did not elaborate.

The latest situation warrants an analysis of the broader strategies behind the recently escalated shows of missile development from Pyongyang. Some say the North Korean nuclear issue should be approached from an arms control standpoint.

Arms control talks with N. Korea: one feasible scenario

One lesson learnt from the 2018 Hanoi summit, where the leaders of North Korea and the United States met but failed to yield any results, was that the Kim Jong-un regime wants its nuclear program to be regarded as undeniable and irreversible, said experts.

A TV screen shows a file image of North Korea's missile launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022. AP-Yonhap
A TV screen shows a file image of North Korea's missile launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022. AP-Yonhap

"I strongly doubt complete denuclearization of North Korea is possible. After the midterm elections, the U.S will have no options but to start arms control talks with North Korea based on the North's commitment to the non-proliferation of its nuclear weapons as it's unlikely for the United States to be in sync with the Yoon Suk-yeol administration's 'pricey hope' for the U.S.' regular rotational deployment of strategic assets including bombers and carrier strike groups," Chung Se-hyun, a former unification minister under the Moon Jae-in administration, told The Korea Times.

"The Yoon administration should not rule out the possibility of the United States restarting negotiations with North Korea. The government has to be prepared to pursue an inclusive mediation process with Washington because Pyongyang wants direct talks with Washington, if the discussion process is renewed, which I think will happen sometime after the U.S. midterm elections."

Pursuing arms control talks with North Korea is not an easy process, as it would mean the recognition of the North as a nuclear state under the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). North Korea became a state party to the NPT in 1985, but withdrew in 2013 and began developing nuclear weapons.

Any engagement in arms control talks with Pyongyang would signify the U.S.' policy change toward North Korea, because Washington has long stressed that the North Korean nuclear program is illegal and subject to United Nations sanctions. Washington said its commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has not changed and added that it is ready to meet the North Koreans without preconditions.

"Despite Washington's repeated commitment to pursuing the complete denuclearization of the peninsula, I would say pursuing complete denuclearization is something that can't be achieved at all. That's why it's a very realistic idea to develop discussions with North Korea from an arms control standpoint," said Kim Jeong-dae, a former South Korean defense official and a visiting professor at Yonsei University.

"If the peninsula sees a further increase in tensions, it's very feasible for the international community to move forward with arms control talks with the North. South Korea has to articulate ideas and suggestions actively and present deliverables when it comes to risk reduction on the peninsula," Kim added.

North Korea is anticipated to increase its nuclear arsenal to between 151 and 242 nuclear weapons by 2027 with the country having the capacity to manage between 30 kilograms to 60 kilograms of plutonium, and 175 kilograms to 645 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) by then, according to estimates by Asan Institute and RAND Corporation, a U.S.-based nonprofit think tank.

The former Moon Jae-in administration had asked the United States to persuade North Korea to follow the Kazakhstan model, but the request was refused as Washington opposes accepting the North as a nuclear state. In return for sovereignty guarantees from major nuclear powers, Kazakhstan, formerly a test site for Soviet nuclear weapons, abandoned its nuclear weapons in the wake of the Soviet collapse.

This handout photo taken on November 5, 2022 and released by Japan's Ministry of Defense shows members of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) and the US participating in a bilateral military exercise in the skies over Kyushu island. North Korean forces said they would respond to joint exercises by the US and South Korea with
This handout photo taken on November 5, 2022 and released by Japan's Ministry of Defense shows members of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) and the US participating in a bilateral military exercise in the skies over Kyushu island. North Korean forces said they would respond to joint exercises by the US and South Korea with "sustained, resolute and overwhelming" military measures, its state media reported on November 7, 2022. The warning came following a spate of missile tests by North Korea last week, including four ballistic missiles on November 5, while the US and South Korea conducted their biggest-ever air force drills. AFP-Yonhap

"As even China, the North's economic lifeline, doesn't want to see a further escalation of geopolitical tensions on the peninsula, given Pyongyang's nuclear strengths, it would be a logical course of action for the United States to review the Kazakhstan model by having the North as a responsible nuclear non-proliferation state, eventually. As its law makes denuclearization negotiations a non-starter, Pyongyang won't repeat its failure in Hanoi by retaining its nuclear program," a presidential security adviser under the former Moon administration said by telephone.

US doesn't want South Korea to become 'nuclear state'

Because it is apparent that North Korea was able to have secured some degree of sanctions relief through China and Russia's non-enforcement of sanctions, some political analysts are asking the Biden administration to impose more extensive sanctions on China and Russia including the imposition of sanctions on leading Chinese commercial banks.

But an expansion of areas of sanctions aimed at pressuring China would cost a lot for the United States as inter-Korean relations are already in jeopardy. Within that context, there are calls from the ruling People Power Party (PPP) politicians for the country to have its own nuclear weapons. Additionally, the reliability of the American nuclear umbrella is being questioned as North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles are capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

A March poll conducted by Asan Institute found some 70.2 percent of South Koreans hoped Seoul would build up its nuclear capability, while another poll in June by the South and North Development (SAND) institute also found that some 74.9 percent Koreans favor a nuclear capability with more than half in support even if it violates the NPT.

"South Korea has to explore self-defense measures. Because we can't counter nuclear threats by using conventional weapons, now it's time to think about asking the United States to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons here, or having our own nuclear capability. I think we have to pursue methods of building our own nuclear weapons, eventually," Rep. Kim Ki-hyun, a PPP lawmaker and one of the leaders in the race for the party chairman post, said in a recent local radio interview.


His suggestion, which aims to reach an "equilibrium" of nuclear force with North Korea, has been shared by other PPP lawmakers, while the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) strongly opposes the idea of South Korea building its own nuclear capability.

While more South Korean citizens and experts are increasingly joined by politicians, who doubt whether Washington will come to Seoul's defense as North Korean missiles could possibly reach any major U.S. city, U.S. experts said developing nuclear weapons would be a politically difficult path for South Korea.

"It would be better for Washington and Seoul to work together on extended deterrence arrangements. The United States needs to ensure that South Korean leaders are confident in U.S. extended deterrence guarantees. That may require closer integration, more information sharing, and perhaps even new strategic mechanisms ― but I think that would be better for both sides than South Korea developing its own nuclear capabilities," Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), told The Korea Times.

"The United States and South Korea need to avoid spending too much time debating the division of spending between the two allies and devote more time to the division of responsibilities," he said.


Kim Yoo-chul yckim@koreatimes.co.kr


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