An arms race is heating up on the Korean Peninsula. Is the window for diplomacy closing?


Three years ago this week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in drew wide applause from thousands of North Koreans in Pyongyang when he declared “a new era of peace.”

He and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had agreed on “concrete measures to completely eliminate the fear of war and the risk of armed conflicts on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon told the crowd at the time. The two Koreas are far from fulfilling that promise, even though they have been a long time since that historic speech. Rival missiles tested by both countries this week indicated an escalating arms race instead of the deliberate drawdown that the leaders had promised. These dual launches sparked new regional security concerns at a time when tensions are rising between the U.S. & China and reminded Washington of its failure to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

North Korea announced it had test-fired cruise missiles over the weekend that traveled farther than any it had previously demonstrated, with the potential capacity to carry a nuclear warhead and evade detection. It fired two ballistic missiles short-range into the sea to its east on Wednesday.

Three men stand straight.

Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Takehiro Funakoshi, center, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim, left, and South Korea’s Noh Kyu-duk pose for photographers during their meeting on North Korea at Japan’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday in Tokyo.

(Eugene Hoshiko / Associated Press)

Hours later, South Korea announced it had successfully tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile, showing off a technology held by only half a dozen other countries and considered an important “second strike” capability in the event of a nuclear attack. On Thursday morning, the North Korean state media claimed that its ballistic missiles were launched from a train. This was another addition to the nation’s growing arsenal. The U.S. and South Korea are now unable to detect and monitor the missiles of North Korea with the help of the “railway mobile missiles systems”.

The escalations are fomenting tensions not seen since 2017, when Kim and President Trump exchanged increasingly fiery rhetoric and North Korea tested nuclear weapons as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. Analysts say the ratcheting up of military might between the Koreas raises the possibility of misunderstandings that could spiral to dangerous consequences — and further dampen the possibility of a diplomatic resolution to disarm North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

“We’re in a very critical moment where things could escalate quickly, which I don’t think either side intended to do,” said Jenny Town, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, who directs the center’s 38 North Program focusing on North Korea analysis.

South Korea’s resorting to bolstering its own defense capabilities — and North Korea continuing to showcase new and more powerful weapons — is not surprising given the stalled relations between the Koreas since talks between North Korea and the U.S. broke down in 2019, Town said.

“Given everything that South Korea did over the past three years, no progress has been made,” she said. “How long are you going to stand by in the hopes things get better while North Korea is moving forward with their advanced capabilities?”

People wearing masks wave flags.

People wave flags in a celebration of North Korea’s 73rd anniversary in Pyongyang, the capital, on Sept. 9, 2021.

(Cha Song Ho / Associated Press)

North Korea has largely turned a cold shoulder to Moon’s entreaties since the failed summit between Kim and Trump in Vietnam. Pyongyang last year made a show of blowing up a liaison office built by the South just north of the border between the Koreas. It maintained one of the strictest border closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, rejecting outside offers of help.

Underlying South Korea’s anxiety is a growing fear that the U.S., which maintains 28,500 troops in the country, is less committed to defending its ally. The North Korean has nuclear weapons but the South doesn’t — the U.S. relies on its “nuclear umbrella”, guaranteeing that it will help.

Throughout his term, Trump had repeatedly accused longtime allies South Korea and Japan of “freeloading,” even suggesting in an interview as a candidate the countries should arm themselves with nuclear weapons rather than rely on the U.S.

“The fact that he put a price tag on the alliance, that raised a lot of concerns for South Koreans,” said James Kim, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul think tank. People need some kind of insurance if the political climate in the U.S. changes. Because of that concern, people need some kind of insurance.”

Kim found in a 2020 poll that 69.3% of South Koreans supported the country developing its own nuclear weapons, and that just 27.7% believed the country was capable of defending itself against North Korea on its own. South Korean media celebrated the South’s success with its missile technology. They also expressed concern at North Korea’s new weapons and the possibility that it might undermine diplomacy. South Korea’s recent increase in defense spending is likely to be a way to calm fears ahead of next year’s presidential elections.

Two smiling men shake hands.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, poses with South Korean President Moon Jae-in inside the Peace House at the border village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone in April 2018.

(Pool Photo)

The Biden administration, for its part, condemned the North’s missile launches but said it remained ready to hold talks with North Korea. This escalated tensions follows a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency last month which found that North Korea had resumed operations at Yongbyon’s key reactor. It forced Biden to face what proved to be one his most difficult foreign policy challenges.

We are committed to the principle of dialogue being able to pursue our ultimate goal, which is quite simply the denuclearization and reunification of the Korean Peninsula,” a spokesperson for the State Department Ned Price said to reporters. The arms race between Koreas is occurring amid growing concerns elsewhere in the region. The U.S. on Wednesday announced it would equip Australia with nuclear submarine technology as part of its efforts to check China’s expanding navy and growing influence in the South China Sea.

Kim from the Asan Institute stated that South Korea is looking beyond the peninsula to strengthen its defense. He said that public displays like this week’s submarine missile launch are more about the message than their possible deployment.

“Some announcements are made to show potential adversaries what your capabilities are, but you prefer not to use those capabilities,” he stated. “The ones you don’t show are the more important ones.”

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