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Why Some Insiders Fear This Is the Year North Korea Will Fire Nukes

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

In his most intensive drive for power over the Korean peninsula since his father’s death more than 12 years ago, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is mounting a blitzkrieg of weapons tests and rhetoric. His goal: to convince both his own people and his enemies that he’ll risk a second Korean War to reunite North and South Korea under one-man rule.

Buoyed by his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kim is shipping artillery shells and missiles for Russian forces bogged down in Ukraine while spreading fears of a grand plan to take over South Korea. The dream is to fulfill the vision of his grandfather, regime founder Kim Il Sung, who tried and failed to conquer the South in the first Korean War.

Kim’s big talk, his decision to give up all pretense of dealing with South Korea, above all his dedication to a nuclear program capable of inflicting mass death from Northeast Asia to the U.S., has experts forecasting more and bigger weapons tests—on top of unremitting threats.

“It looks like Kim Jong Un is talking about absorption by conquest,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, long-time researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. “What’s changed since last year? We know that North Korea is preparing for nuclear war on the Korean peninsula.”

Eberstadt, talking to The Daily Beast, qualified that bold assertion by noting that South Korea, with a strong economy and a well-equipped military establishment, supported by its American ally, is far more powerful than the impoverished North Korea, whose 1.2 million troops are underfed, ill-equipped, and often used as slave labor on farms and construction projects.

“Do they really think they are ready to gamble on something like this?” asked Eberstadt. “I find it fascinating that he would gamble on six or seven decades of talk about unification by changing the party line of his grandfather,” Kim Il Sung, and his father, Kim Jong Il, “who were both talking about unification.”

Renouncing reunification of North and South Korea by negotiations and proclaiming South Korea “our principal enemy,” he ordered the destruction of the famous reunification arch that spanned the main entrance into Pyongyang from the south as a symbol of his shifting policy. The arch, which was completed in 2001, showed two women in traditional Korean dress leaning toward each other high above the highway, their outstretched hands holding an image of a map of all Korea. It was a familiar sight to visitors to the capital.

The bluff and bluster, the rhetoric, the testing of ever more sophisticated weaponry prompts the critical question: Could this be the year Kim launches deadly missiles? The realization that Kim has America’s two biggest, deadliest foes, both nuclear superpowers, on his side has bolstered the argument.

“Knowing China and Russia have his back at the U.N. Security Council could embolden Kim Jong Un to even more provocative behavior,” Bruce Klingner, former CIA analyst and long-time Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Beast. “North Korea could conduct its long-awaited seventh nuclear test—either of a new generation of tactical battlefield nuclear weapons or Kim’s promised ‘super-large’ weapon.”

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attend a meeting at the Vostochny Сosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, Sept. 13, 2023.

Artem Geodakyan/Pool via Reuters

China and Russia are sure to oppose all attempts at censuring or slapping new U.N. sanctions on North Korea, much less enforcing those already in place, but China’s President Xi Jinping is assumed to have dissuaded Kim from ordering a nuclear test since September 2017 when a hydrogen bomb blew up much of a mountain.

Alternatively, we may expect Kim to resort to more missile and artillery tests—and also foment “provocations” endangering “enemy” troops—“in the run-up to annual U.S.-South Korean large-scale military exercises in March,” said Klingner. In recent weeks he’s ordered the test of an underwater drone that might be tipped with a warhead, he’s sent a spy satellite circling the Earth, and he’s got a new reprocessing facility several times bigger than the old five-megawatt reactor up and running at the nuclear complex at Yongbyon 60 miles north of Pyongyang.

After North Korean gunners fired several cruise missiles off its west and east coasts, Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency said Kim supervised the launch of a new model submarine-launched cruise missile that soared over the waters between North Korea and Japan for two hours and three minutes.

Such tests have become almost routine under a regime that’s conducted more than 100 of them in the past two years. The overriding concern is that the missiles—and artillery—are growing ever more accurate and powerful as Kim looks for a pretext to finally shift from rhetoric about war to the real thing.

“The regime could also launch an ICBM over Japan and demonstrate multiple-warhead or re-entry vehicle capabilities,” Klingner observed. “To date, all ICBM launches have been on a near-vertical lofted trajectory to avoid flying over other countries.”

That estimate supports an analysis issued last year by the National Intelligence Council forecasting that Kim “most likely will employ a variety of coercive methods and threats of aggression” and “may be willing to take greater conventional military risks, believing that nuclear weapons will deter an unacceptably strong U.S. or South Korean response.”

All of which leads Victor Cha, long-time Korea analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, to observe there are “many rungs in the escalation ladder that Kim could climb before all-out war”—meaning he could look for ways to stir up fears among American policy-makers that may be forgetting him while focusing on shooting wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

A sequence of photos of a North Korean missile launch.

A combination picture shows a missile launch, as the state media report North Korea tested its new land-to-air cruise missiles off its west coast, North Korea, Jan. 2, 2024.

KCNA via Reuters

Possibly the strongest sign that Kim cannot be totally serious when it comes to waging war, however, is that he’s selling missiles along with artillery shells and other weaponry to Russia that he might not want to spare if he were serious about preparing for attack.

“Why would he be hawking all of his ammo to Putin if he was about to go to war?” Cha asked. “This is not to say he won’t be firing a lot of missiles this year. It’s a U.S. election year and the North Korean leaders always like to make themselves heard on U.S. election years.”

Klingner agrees that the ammo sale is a clue. “While some experts speculate that Kim Jong Un has already made the strategic decision to go to war, Pyongyang would not have sent massive amounts of artillery munitions as well as dozens of its new KN-23 missiles to Russia if it were contemplating starting a war with South Korea,” he told The Daily Beast.

Rather, he said, it’s “more probable” that he’ll instigate “another tactical-level military clash along the demilitarized zone or maritime Northern Limit Line”—the line in the Yellow Sea below which North Korean vessels are banned. He may look for a quick hit, such as two attacks in the Yellow Sea in 2010 in which the South Korean frigate Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo, killing 46 sailors, and a small island off the North’s southwestern coast was shelled, killing two Korean marines and two contract workers.

It’s the likelihood of surprise as Kim looks for leverage in an American election year that arouses the worst fears—that and the possibility that an isolated shock attack could quickly escalate on the wings of Kim’s happiness over his deal with the Russians.

Then too, Kim, under severe pressure domestically to prove he’s a dynamic leader capable of relieving the poverty and nagging hunger that pervades the lives of most of the North’s 25-26 million people, may try to enhance his power and prestige by finally attacking the South.

Kim “might very well be under severe stress internally,” said David Maxwell, vice president of the Center for Asia-Pacific Strategy. “He may perceive threats from the elite and from the Korean people in the north.”

The real danger “lies not with a calculated deliberate attack,” said Maxwell, a retired army colonel who did five tours in South Korea with the special forces. “If he cannot maintain internal control and perceives the threat is unmanageable, he may believe his only option is to execute his campaign plan to unify the peninsula by force in order to ensure regime survival.”

Or perhaps Kim is following the old playbook of revving up a sense of genuine crisis, getting diplomats scurrying hither and yon, dragging the U.S., South Korea, and Japan reluctantly into yet another talkfest reminiscent of the six-party talks, including the U.S. and both Koreas as well as China, Russia and Japan. They sputtered on for nearly seven years, from 2002 to 2009 when North Korea cut them off after Kim Jong Il ordered the North’s second nuclear test in May of that year, two and a half years after the first nuclear test in October 2006.

The Plot to Kill Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong Un, like his father and grandfather, “always wants to dominate the whole Korean Peninsula,” said Choi Jin-wook, president of the Center for Strategic and Cultural Studies in Seoul. “Negotiating with the U.S. and neutralizing is his goal.” Choi argues that Kim, exploiting “the sensitive point between Washington’s diplomatic reluctance and military capacity,” figures the U.S. “is reluctant to be engaged in another conflict” amid wars in Gaza and Ukraine. “Kim wants to make a provocation to negotiate with the U.S.,” said Choi.

“Provocation” is a watchword that analysts routinely predict. Two of them, Robert Carlin, a former chief of the Northeast Asia Division in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department, and Siegfried S. Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, believe the word is not strong enough for what lies ahead.

“The situation on the Korean Peninsula is more dangerous than it has been at any time since early June 1950” when Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, ordered his troops to invade South Korea, they write in 38 North, a website that tracks North Korea from Washington. They may not know “when or how Kim plans to pull the trigger,” but say “the danger is already far beyond the routine warnings in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo about Pyongyang’s provocations,” and they don’t see the outpouring of harsh words from Pyongyang over the past year “as typical bluster.”

Pyongyang-watchers contacted by The Daily Beast, however, take a more nuanced view.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Nampo Shipyard in North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Nampo Shipyard in North Korea in this picture released by the Korean Central News Agency on Feb. 2, 2024.

KCNA via Reuters

“At least some of this rhetoric is in response to the new allied focus on extended deterrence,” said Bruce Bechtol, former Defense Department intelligence analyst and author of numerous books and studies on North Korea’s leadership. The U.S., South Korea and Japan have formed a “nuclear consultative group” and “formalized much of the planning for how to respond to a North Korean nuclear attack,” said Bechtol. “Clearly Pyongyang sees this as a threat.”

Bechtol does not, however, “see North Korea launching a large-scale, ‘bolt-out-of-the-blue’ attack on South Korea, or on the USA using ICBM’s.” Rather, he predicted “renewed and focused testing of North Korean ballistic missile systems and perhaps even a nuclear test.”

“The North Koreans likely asked the Russians for advanced ballistic missile technology as part of the payment for the large numbers of artillery, shells, rockets, and SRBM’s that North Korea sold to Moscow,” he said. “Thus, the North Koreans will be anxious to show off that technology in 2024.”

“But an attack on the South, or the USA?” Bechtol asked. “Highly, highly unlikely,” he said, dismissing Hecker as “very smart on nuclear weapons” but “hardly an international security expert.” And, he added, “It goes without saying (but I will say it anyway) that I disagree with Carlin as well.”

At Ewha University in Seoul, Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international relations, noted that “Pyongyang has taken disproportionate steps including missile tests it says are preparations for nuclear war, while abolishing organizations for inter-Korean exchanges and labeling Seoul an enemy to be defeated.” Still, he said, “Many of Kim’s recent pronouncements are likely for domestic political consumption.”

In fact, said Easley, “South Koreans have, for many years, suspected that there could be no denuclearization and peaceful reunification as long as the Kim regime rules North Korea.” By “formalizing this in law, dashing hopes for reconciliation that had facilitated inter-Korean diplomacy, Kim’s motivation is probably not to start a war but to blame South Korea for the costly policies he employs to maintain power.”

Evans Revere, who served for years as a senior U.S. diplomat in both Seoul and Tokyo, attributes what he calls Kim’s “latest gambit” to “four words: exasperation, fear, arrogance, and cunning.”

Kim, he said, “has found, much to his chagrin,” that South Korea’s current government, under the conservative President Yoon Seoul-yul, “is never going to play the old game of offering unilateral concessions, turning the other cheek when Pyongyang insults and threatens the South, accommodating North Korean excesses, and bending over backwards—all to keep dialogue going at almost any price.”

It’s for that reason, Revere surmised, that Kim “has decided to flip the script and declare that South Korea is not only no longer a partner for dialogue, reconciliation, and eventual reunification” but “is now an enemy state, an alien country that does not deserve to be called “Korean,” and a proper target of North Korea’s military might and its desire now to forcibly subjugate the South at the right moment.”

So doing, said Revere, Kim has “made clear that everything, including violence, is now fair game when it comes to dealing with the South.” His “more aggressive posture, missile testing, and new nuclear and conventional military moves are also driven by his concern” that U.S. relations with South Korea “are closer and stronger than ever” while trilateral cooperation among the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, “is growing quickly, U.S.-allied joint exercises are more robust and realistic than ever, and U.S. military power on and around the Korean Peninsula is robust and ready.”

Revere derides, however, what he called “the breathless tone of some experts declaring that North Korea is ‘preparing for war’”—a reference to the Hecker-Carlin article. North Korea’s “goal is survival, not suicide,” he told The Daily Beast. “The military balance is not in his favor and never will be. Kim Jong Un knows how another Korean War would end. He does not wish his “paradise” turned into an ash heap.”

Looking toward more endless talks that go nowhere, however, Revere said Kim “also knows that enough breast-beating, over-the-top-rhetoric, and threats will give the U.S. and its allies pause.”

US military Stryker armored vehicles participate in a joint live fire exercise in South Korea.

US military Stryker armored vehicles participate in a joint live fire exercise between South Korea and the US at a military training field in Pocheon on Jan. 4, 2024.

Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

He’s “giddy with confidence,” said Revere, because of “flourishing ties with Russia, Moscow’s payment for North Korean weapons, and visions of getting Russian technical support for its missile, space, and other programs.” Russia and China also “provide reliable cover” in the U.N. Security Council, “shielding him from efforts to impose new UNSC sanctions.”

Just as important, as intimated by Hecker and Carlin, is that “North Korea’s survival skills do not fail to impress,” said Revere. “Kim’s warlike rhetoric has convinced some American critics of Biden administration policy, who once argued that Pyongyang’s moves were purely defensive and North Korea only wanted better relations with the U.S., that North Korea is now on the path to an offensive war.”

Kim “must be smiling at his good fortune in enlisting the support of this key U.S. constituency in making the case that it is Washington, and not Pyongyang, that is at fault,” said Revere.

Moon Chung-in, a notable professor who advised the previous liberal South Korean administration on dealing with North Korea, has long espoused dialogue with the North. He disagrees with the rather extreme views of Hecker and Carlin but worries about incidents resulting from errors and miscalculations.

“War by plan is not imminent,” he told a forum at the Korea Society in New York. “Naval clashes can occur any time. North Korea has 12,000 artillery pieces along the demilitarized zone. We should come up with measures for stability and reducing risks.”

Bruce Bennett, veteran Korea analyst at the RAND Corporation, sees the aggressive policies of South Korea’s conservative President Yoon Seok-yul, also as challenging Kim to react harshly.

Yoon, after enthusiastically approving joint war games with American troops after his leftist predecessor, Moon Jae-in, stopped them, “has threatened major retaliation against any North Korean attack,” said Bennett. “Since Kim wants to undermine the U.S. alliance, Kim may try to further this objective by doing some form of limited attack, hoping for an escalated retaliation against which he will escalate, hoping to make Yoon’s actions appear reckless.”

The risks for Kim are high. “One problem Kim faces is identifying an initial attack that is sufficiently limited and/or plausibly deniable,” said Bennett. South Koreans “would find a deadly North Korean missile attack too extreme, likely yielding the opposite of the effect Kim wants.

Bennett cites any number of scenarios for a North Korean response short of all-out war. “Kim might try a non-lethal missile attack, such as firing a North Korean theater missile at an uninhabited island,” he said. Or Kim “could try a special forces attack, hoping that his personnel would not get caught. A third alternative would be a major cyber attack”—crippling a bank or disrupting the South Korean power grid.

The Grim Endgame of Putin and Kim Jong Un’s New Lovefest

“A North Korean attack becomes far more dangerous once Kim roughly doubles his current nuclear weapon and ICBM capabilities,” Bennett said, “but that is several years off.”

Markus Garlauskas, at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, citing North Korea’s “history of limited violence,” believes the U.S. and South Korea need “to have the capability of quick retaliation below the level of full-scale war.” It’s “in that space between provocation of war,” he said at the Korea Society forum, “where we should be focusing.”

The Chinese are believed to have been dissuading North Korea from staging another nuclear test. For all his talk, Kim has held off on what would be the North’s seventh nuclear test—its first since September 2017. “They were definitely talking about concerns about a nuclear test,” said Susan Thornton, a former State Department official, now at Brookings. Moreover, “They have been unhappy about the weapons sales to Russia.” Still, she said, “they were also unhappy about the U.S. approach to North Korea and think there should be discussions going.”

Bottom line: Ankit Pandit, nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, expects Kim “to keep up his missile exercises and developmental tests this year.” South Korea and the U.S. “should remain vigilant to possible limited attacks short of all-out war, too,” he warned. “Kim appears especially confident in the current context.”

There’s no denying Kim may stage an attack when least expected, as when North Korea invaded the South in June 1950. Kim Kisam, formerly with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, told The Daily Beast, “We should not downplay whatever comes from his mouth.”

The North Korean leader is “now equipped with nukes and has piled up plenty of vehicles,” said Kim Kisam. “Highly likely, he maintains dozens of underground tunnels for surprise attacks. The more he feels his situation is dire, the more he’s tempted to attack the South.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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