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 very soon.
The big picture: Kim Jong-un’s regime continues to build its nuclear arsenal and rejects offers from the United States and South Korea for dialogue or COVID aid.
- Neither of the two allies is prepared to offer unilateral concessions to break the impasse. This effectively made them spectators, waiting for bad news.
Faced with the growing threat, South Korea’s hawkish new president Yoon Suk-yeol focuses on strengthening Seoul’s defenses and its alliance with the United States
- “The seventh nuclear test is very likely. Our response will be very tough and tough, and it will increase tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” said Moon Chung-in, chairman of the Sejong Institute think tank.
- Moon says the United States and South Korea have little to prevent a test and almost nothing to sanction in response, leaving steps like joint military exercises and the deployment of additional US military assets to the region.
- “North Korea will respond in the same way,” said Moon, who served as a top adviser to Yoon’s predecessor. The test for leaders in Washington and Seoul will be getting out of this cycle, he says, but it 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 meaningful progress on the nuclear issue.
- Now Yoon and President Biden seem pessimistic about reaching a nuclear deal.
- “The Yoon government is open to dialogue with North Korea, but that doesn’t mean we are rushing to make a breakthrough,” said an adviser who worked on Yoon’s campaign. “We will be patient.”
- A ruling party lawmaker notes that carrots and sticks have been tried for the past five years and “nothing has worked”.
Between the lines: Current limbo is not entirely new. North Korea has combined diplomatic silence with nuclear provocations before, including during the “fire and furyperiod leading up to 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 the development of nuclear weapons domestically, rather than relying on the US nuclear umbrella. It won’t happen any time soon, but the poll reflects the feeling of insecurity among the population.
The other side: Some experts in Seoul believe Kim felt burned or even cheated by the United States after his summits with Trump yielded no sanctions relief.
- The United States will likely have to take the lead if there is to be a breakthrough, a senior South Korean opposition figure has said, as Kim’s appointments and rhetoric suggest he is emphasizing his relations with Washington rather than with Seoul.
- So far, Biden has not prioritized North Korea or offered much more than a standing offer for talks without preconditions.
- Meanwhile, China vetoed additional sanctions against North Korea at the UN earlier this month and it seems unlikely to join the United States in increasing pressure on its nuclear-powered neighbor. of nuclear weapon.
What to watch: The North Korean regime could eventually return to the negotiating table, perhaps when it feels threatened or thinks it has the upper hand.
- But even if those talks begin, few in Seoul will expect them to end with Kim handing over his nuclear arsenal.