The US Is Raising Tensions With North Korea

North Korea is taking an increasingly hostile posture toward the US. It’s the predictable result of the United States’ aggressive maneuvering in the region in its great power rivalry with China.

Last July, Presiden Biden broke 40 years of precedent by sending a nuclear-armed submarine, the USS Kentucky, to make a port call in Busan, South Korea. (SeongJoon Cho / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In January, two veteran Korea watchers — Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker — published a provocative short piece that argues that, “like his grandfather in 1950, Kim Jong Un has made a strategic decision to go to war.” Carlin and Hecker contend that in the wake of the Hanoi Summit’s failure in 2019, the Kim regime abandoned North Korea’s thirty-year goal of normalizing relations with the United States. Citing recent shifts in government rhetoric and policy, they warn that “the situation may have reached the point that we must seriously consider a worst case” — meaning North Korean military action backed up by nuclear weapons.

Alarmist claims about North Korea are common, but the piece raised eyebrows precisely because the two analysts are not known for them. Both are widely respected and eminently credentialed: Carlin is the former head of the Northeast Asia Division in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department, and Hecker is a former director of Los Alamos who has actually visited North Korean nuclear facilities.

Their argument was provocative enough that it even garnered coverage in the mainstream press, with NBC News asking in a headline: “Is Kim Jong Un preparing North Korea for war?” While the Korea-watcher community has been skeptical, the article does raise some questions: what would lead two dovish analysts to warn of a strategic shift by North Korea? Is it possible the Kim government really has decided to go to war?

The news from North Korea is bad and getting worse, but it does not add up to incontrovertible evidence of a pro-war strategic shift. That said, I think Carlin and Hecker are correct to draw attention to North Korea’s changing approach to the United States.

Something is happening. Where once better relations were held out as a distant possibility, the Kim government now seems to be foreclosing on that option — and replacing it with closer coordination with US adversaries. But to understand why the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) may be making that change, we have to move beyond analyzing its relationship with the United States per se and instead explore the ongoing militarization of the Pacific, the impact of right-wing governance in South Korea, the negative consequences of US sanctions, and the Biden administration’s commitment to what is euphemistically called “great power competition.”

One Country’s Exercise Is Another Country’s Provocation

The failed Hanoi Summit has certainly played a major role in North Korea’s shifting pose. Faced with an opportunity to limit the North Korean nuclear arsenal, the Trump administration instead demanded total disarmament — and walked away with nothing. US commentators praised Donald Trump for rejecting a bad deal, but as nuclear weapons expert Jeffrey Lewis wrote at the time, the deal was probably the best the United States could have gotten.

Kim Jong Un no doubt felt he had been taken for a ride, especially given the propaganda shifts necessary to undertake negotiations in 2018 and 2019. When the summit fell apart, North Korea responded by making 2019 a record year for missile tests. In 2022, it more than doubled that record.

But while Hanoi has been a key factor in North Korea’s increasingly antagonistic posture, subsequent events have been just as important. For one thing, the Biden administration simply has not made North Korea a diplomatic priority. The administration often stresses its willingness to talk “without preconditions,” but it has done little if anything to entice North Korea to the negotiating table.

The DPRK’s reluctance to talk is frustrating, but as a fellow analyst recently mentioned, conditions may be exactly what the Kim regime needs to hear from the US. If you want to avoid an embarrassing repeat of Hanoi, it makes sense to want to see concrete goals and ground rules for talks ahead of time.

Relations are stuck in a vicious cycle. The administration declares its willingness to talk but is unwilling to make concessions to incentivize the North Koreans to negotiate; North Korea views US messaging skeptically and refuses to talk. The US responds by beefing up “deterrence,” stressing that while it remains open to negotiations, an expanded military presence in the region is necessary to keep Kim Jong Un in check. (Perhaps more important, it also fits with the overriding US goal of countering China.) North Korea then sees these deployments as evidence of nefarious intentions and views the next US statement with even greater suspicion. The cycle continues.

The point is that military assets will always speak louder than words — and the Biden administration’s approach to the Korean peninsula relies heavily on military assets. In July, it broke forty years of precedent by sending a nuclear-armed submarine to make a port call in Busan, South Korea. President Yoon Suk-yeol boarded the sub and declared publicly that any “nuclear provocation” from the North would result in “the end of the regime.”

Biden has also pushed for near constant and often expanded military exercises to shore up deterrence. To cite examples from just the past year, the US–South Korean field exercises held in March 2023 were the largest in five years, and the live-fire drills that followed in May were said to be the biggest ever.

Large-scale annual drills were also held in August, but amid these regular exercises there have been innumerable other drills between the US and Japan, the US and South Korea, and even trilateral exercises between all three. Is it any surprise that a country surrounded by coordinating adversaries projecting military power may have given up on the prospect of détente?

Trilateralism and Empires Old and New

We know that North Korea already regards bilateral exercises as provocative, so one can imagine what the Kim regime thinks of growing trilateral security cooperation. In August, President Biden hosted the leaders of South Korea and Japan at a high-profile Camp David summit. In a joint statement, the three parties declared “a new era of trilateral partnership” and committed to “raise our shared ambition to a new horizon, across domains and across the Indo-Pacific and beyond.”

Among other things, this partnership will include “annual, named, multi-domain trilateral exercises on a regular basis to enhance our coordinated capabilities and cooperation.” Increased trilateralism has long been the dream of hawkish US analysts, who support a far more extensive military presence in Northeast Asia. Biden — in the name of deterrence and competition — has helped make this expansion a reality.

Trilateralism is sold to policymakers and the public as a mechanism to deter North Korea, and it is true that many of its facets are directed at the Kim regime. It is likely, though, that for the United States, trilateral cooperation has more to do with China than the fiery but more or less contained DPRK. Checking Chinese power is the overarching goal of US strategy and shoring up alliances in the Pacific is a logical step in establishing an anti-China bloc.

In that sense, trilateralism is similar to the AUKUS deal announced in 2021. That agreement was ostensibly about providing Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, but it only really makes sense as a way to expand the capabilities of US allies in the Pacific to counter the Chinese military.

A true anti-China bloc will not be built overnight. Indeed, many Asian countries retain an ambivalent stance on China, in part because of the country’s sheer economic power. Even the Biden administration is cagey about the topic, stressing that it seeks competition rather than outright conflict.

But from the administration’s standpoint, deterrence — the bedrock of “managed competition” — requires long-term planning, so it must act now if opportunities arise that could lead to closer coordination against China in the future. The election of Yoon Suk-yeol in South Korea was one such opportunity.

The joint statement includes a note of praise from President Biden, who commends Japanese prime minister Kishida Fumio and South Korean president Yoon “for their courageous leadership in transforming relations between Japan and the ROK [Republic of Korea].” The note parallels comparable statements from US-based analysts, who have treated Yoon as a visionary willing to buck domestic opinion to secure the region’s long-term security. Trilateralism is indeed controversial in South Korea, although analysts typically do not state the reasons — the living memory of Japanese occupation and continued imperial apologia in Japan.

Also unmentioned is the obvious reason Yoon had no problem making his “courageous” decision: South Korean conservatives have a very positive view of the Japanese right, an orientation that stretches back to collaboration during the 1910–1945 occupation. It continues today. In March, Yoon announced a settlement to the ongoing question of monetary compensation for Korean victims of wartime forced labor, about 1,800 of whom are still living. Opposing the rulings of South Korean courts (which have found Japanese companies liable) and the wishes of the victims themselves, Yoon’s proposal will instead use money from South Korean corporations to pay out compensation to claimants. Japan, the former colonial occupier, is not required to contribute.

President Biden praised the deal for inaugurating “a groundbreaking new chapter” in relations between the two countries. The growth of American power in the Pacific is being accomplished by sweeping the history of Japanese colonialism under the rug.

Our Man in Seoul

Conservative South Korean president Yoon’s narrow victory in 2022 enabled many of the policy changes mentioned above. Earlier in his presidency, Yoon made a not-so-subtle threat to explore the possibility of a South Korean nuclear arsenal. His comments garnered the attention of the Biden administration (probably on purpose), which created the Nuclear Consultative Group to bring South Korea into deterrence planning and tamp down talk of proliferation. Yoon’s comments were likely also what pushed the US to start sending nuclear-armed subs to the peninsula, as a show of its commitment to “extended deterrence.”

More broadly, conservatism in South Korea is defined by a hawkish stance toward the North, so Yoon’s foreign policy aligns with longstanding US preferences for pressure (sanctions), deterrence (military power), and denuclearization (up-front disarmament). He is a reliable partner for the Biden administration, in other words, because he already agrees with what it wants to do.

Domestically, Yoon’s militarist impulse has led his administration to restart nationwide civil defense drills and organize the first military parade in downtown Seoul in a decade. The last such parade was held during the reign of disgraced conservative president Park Geun-hye, who was later deposed in the Candlelight Revolution of 2016–17.

Coverage of Yoon in the United States is reminiscent of the fawning treatment given to former Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo, who was depicted as a gentle statesman despite being a right-wing nationalist. (Steve Bannon once called him “Trump before Trump.”) Yoon has spent much of his presidency in an extreme anticommunist mode, trying to tie the domestic opposition to the DPRK. In an August speech commemorating Korea’s liberation from the Japanese Empire, Yoon warned of “anti-state forces” working to harm South Korea from within. “The forces of communist totalitarianism,” Yoon declared, “have always disguised themselves as democracy activists, human rights advocates, or progressive activists while engaging in despicable and unethical tactics and false propaganda.”

The statement is shocking in its own right, but it is particularly offensive in South Korea, where activists spent decades fighting for democracy while being tarred by conservatives as North Korean operatives. Some of those activists — like former president Moon Jae-in — are now senior members of the opposition party.

Yoon’s demagoguery matters because, while South Korean democracy is healthier than that of its alliance partner, it could hardly be described as stable. The situation is volatile enough that writer Tammy Kim warned of democratic erosion in a September piece for the New Yorker, citing Yoon’s threats to “protections for women, the right to associate and organize, and, most strikingly, freedom of the press.”

More ominously, in early January South Korean opposition leader Lee Jae-myung was stabbed in the neck during an appearance in Busan. Lee was rushed to surgery and luckily survived. The perpetrator, a sixty-seven-year-old realtor, told police that he stabbed Lee to prevent him from becoming president. The would-be assassin apparently believed that “pro-North Korean forces” in the judiciary were delaying attempts to hold Lee accountable, and that killing him would prevent a left-wing takeover. Yoon has of course denounced the stabbing, but one wonders whether his right-wing bully pulpit has played a role in stirring up anti-communist extremism.

The Emerging Pariah Bloc

In October, US officials revealed that North Korea shipped more than one thousand containers of equipment and munitions to Russia for use in its war against Ukraine. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, lately known as the administration’s chief defender of its Israel policy, stated at the time, “We condemn the DPRK for providing Russia with this military equipment, which will be used to attack Ukrainian cities, kill Ukrainian civilians, and further Russia’s illegitimate war.”

Kirby expressed concern that arms transfers could eventually go both ways, with Russia providing technology to North Korea that it could not normally receive under international sanctions. More details emerged in January when analysts found strong evidence that Russia had used the Hwasong-11, a North Korean ballistic missile, in at least two attacks against Ukraine.

The news caps a year in which Kim Jong Un used a number of public appearances to show off the North Korean arms industry. Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pyongyang in July, where he viewed two drone designs and an intercontinental ballistic missile. It was, perhaps significantly, the first state visit since North Korea closed its borders in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shoigu later told journalists that the two countries were considering a joint military exercise. And of course Vladimir Putin hosted Kim Jong Un at a September summit, where the two toured a Russian factory that constructs fighter jets.

North Korean support for Russia’s war in Ukraine has been rightly met with shock and disgust, but it should not be surprising — least of all to the US government. The broad sanctions levied against Russia for its illegal invasion were bound to push it closer to other US adversaries, which share little in common except their status as economic pariahs. North Korea has been under extreme sanctions for years (especially since 2016 and 2017), and while smuggling and hacking soften the blow, they’re hardly a substitute for large-scale arms deals. In this case, the Kim government probably saw an opening — the Russian need for materiel to prosecute the war — and jumped on it. The benefits for North Korea are political as well as economic: not only do arms deals bring in much needed energy, fuel, and cash; they also throw a monkey wrench into the UN sanctions regime, which Russia until recently supported.

Tellingly, Kirby confirmed in January that Russia is looking to buy additional missiles from Iran, which is subject to “arguably the most extensive and comprehensive set of sanctions that the United States maintains on any country,” according to the Congressional Research Service. Sanctions may have economically isolated US adversaries from countries within its own orbit, but they have also drawn those adversaries closer together. With the headlong plunge into great power competition, backed up by the pursuit of military primacy, sanctioned countries’ convergence into a more solidified opposition seems likely to continue.

A Hostile Environment

To return to our starting point, consider the environment facing North Korea: It feels burned by a United States that did not accept the deal on offer at Hanoi. It sees a constant display of military power in its backyard by three countries that are deepening their cooperation. Where once trilateralism was a mere threat, now it functionally exists — thanks to US strategy against China and the election of a hawkish South Korean president. Russia, a friendly neighbor and a fellow target of sanctions, is in need of weapons and ammunition.

The DPRK is seizing the opportunity, knowing full well it will raise the ire of the United States. And why not? The American position since Hanoi has been perfectly — which is to say militarily — clear.

Some might object that this analysis focuses too intently on choices made by the United States; they might even say it erases North Korea’s “agency.” But while the autocratic Kim government does bear responsibility for the state of tensions, we cannot ignore the asymmetry between a poor, besieged state and a superpower capable of changing global security conditions on a whim.

Countries make their own decisions, you might say, but they do not make them as they please. They do not make them under self-selected circumstances but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted by the superpowers’ actions of the past — including the very recent past. We may find North Korea’s choices to be appalling, even dangerous, but they are not irrational. The Kim government has assessed the security conditions, which are overwhelmingly set by the world hegemon, and placed its bets accordingly.

North Korea’s decision to turn further away from the United States and toward its adversaries probably does increase the risk of war. But that is not to say the situation has reached a point of no return. The problem is that pulling back will require more than just a dramatic change in the US-DPRK relationship, which was already unlikely. That relationship is now inextricably bound up with both competition against China and tensions with Russia that stem from US support for Ukraine. These are all interlocking challenges, in other words, and the situation with North Korea is only one example of how great power competition is exacerbating tensions in regions that were already powder kegs.

The stakes are high: behind all these interrelated crises lies the potential for nuclear war. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, still unrestrained, continues to advance. The last bilateral treaty limiting US and Russian nuclear weapons expires in 2026. The United States is spending $1.7 trillion to modernize its entire nuclear arsenal over the next thirty years. Russia recently deployed tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. China is undergoing a major expansion of its once modest nuclear arsenal. We’ve got to kill great power competition before it kills us.