North Korea’s Friday announcement that it had successfully tested a “high-thrust, solid-fuel motor” was seriously bad news for the United States and its allies. Pyongyang’s ballistic missile program has long received considerable international attention (although regrettably little effective response), but last week’s test reached a potentially significant milestone. Solid-fuel missiles, unlike their liquid-fueled counterparts, are quickly launchable once deployed from hidden arsenals. They are essential to a nuclear power’s first-strike capability, sent on their way before they can be pre-emptively destroyed on the launching pad, which is a major risk for liquid-fueled missiles. North Korean propaganda always merits independent verification, but this rings depressingly true, following as it does months of extensive, continuing missile testing, nearly 70 launches this year, and increasingly harsh rhetoric by Kim Jong Un’s regime.
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The Biden administration reacted passively, letting the test proceed without significant reaction. Perhaps it was consumed with its rearrangement of the bureaucratic deck chairs on the State Department Titanic to handle its nearly invisible China strategy. There’s nothing like a government reorganization to help divert from a policy vacuum. Unfortunately, North Korea’s quickening menace hasn’t even provoked any visible paper reshuffling.
While Beijing is undoubtedly this century’s existential threat for America, Pyongyang is an immediate danger — to Northeast Asia, the United States, and worldwide. As the North’s capabilities accumulate with increasing speed, it may be difficult to identify the significance of each new piece of bad news. But North Korea remains a desperately impoverished country, once again reportedly enduring significant food shortages and still shrouding its experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic. Indulging in the expenditures necessary for the offensive military systems it is building, its nuclear-weapons program most prominently, underlines just how determined, and likely how close to fruition, Kim’s project is.
Japan and South Korea Getting Serious
North Korea is effectively China’s surrogate in destabilizing Northeast Asia. Although both sides deny that Pyongyang is subordinate to Beijing, it is long past time to appreciate that China’s support for the North is effectively the foundation keeping the Kim dynasty in power. China’s Communist party supports the world’s only hereditary Communist dictatorship because it suits them; if China wanted North Korea’s nuclear program ended, it could terminate its support tomorrow. Kim Jong Un would be unable to hold onto power for long, replaced most likely (and perhaps bloodily) by a general at Beijing’s beck and call. Stripped to its essentials, the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship is not nearly so complicated as the charade we have, in effect, accepted these many years.
The key conclusion is that China and North Korea constitute a joint threat. They are not independent variables, although the nature of their threat manifests itself in many different ways. From that conclusion flows the logic that an opposing strategy must address how to handle this combined threat over time, whatever aspect seems most imminent at any particular point. Indeed, if anything, given the intensifying cooperation between North Korea and Russia regarding Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the global nature of the growing threat is even clearer. Washington may be having trouble understanding this point, but last week, after due deliberation, Tokyo reacted with stunning decisiveness.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged to double Japan’s defense budget in five years (thereby reaching the target of 2% of GDP for military expenditure set eight years ago for NATO members). Fulfilling the pledge would make Japan’s defense outlays the world’s third-largest, behind only the United States and China. Tokyo also published Defense of Japan 2022, a white paper stressing the threat from Beijing and Pyongyang and the continued strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Moreover, as Japan foreshadowed earlier this year announcing its assistance to Ukraine, the new defense strategy says clearly that “North Korea defends Russia.” The European Union should certainly take note of this resolve emanating from the Far East.
A few days before, Japan announced its purchase of up to 500 Tomahawk cruise missiles, a move the Washington Post characterized as “a stunning break with a long tradition of eschewing offensive weapons.” With a range exceeding 1,000 miles, Tomahawks fired from Japan could easily reach Beijing, and they could hit all of North Korea. Obviously much more remains to be accomplished before Prime Minister Kishida’s objectives, and those of Defense of Japan 2022, can be achieved, but Tokyo’s forward thinking is impressive.
In South Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol, still a relatively new president, has had considerable success in moving away from the “sunshine policy” of his immediate predecessor, notably by restarting joint military exercises with the U.S., which were unwisely curtailed during President Donald Trump’s futile efforts to negotiate with Pyongyang. Yoon has also taken steps to improve relations with Japan, which is critical to more effective collective-defense measures in the Western Pacific. South Korea’s growing appreciation that Chinese threats to Taiwan implicate its own national security marks a critical advance in Seoul’s strategic vision.
Foreign Policy Is a Big Domestic Political Issue
The real problem here, in facing China and North Korea, is the passivity of the United States. President Biden’s seeming resolve to continue for a third term the failed Obama administration policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea, and its self-imposed imperative of climate-change negotiations with China, have stifled development of an effective U.S. policy response. Once-promising initiatives like the Asian Quad are stalled, and new military initiatives regarding Korea, worthwhile though they may be, are decidedly limited in scope. Around the region, for example, concern for China’s efforts to establish hegemony has motivated Vietnam to consider major increases in weapons purchases from America, but Washington is reacting to these developments, not leading.
The already-underway 2024 U.S. presidential campaign is likely to turn more on foreign policy and defense matters than most other recent elections. A major land war in Europe, the continuing threats of international terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and above all China’s growing menace and that of its North Korean sidekick, are increasingly impossible to avoid. The Biden administration’s quiescence, particularly on Asian threats, jeopardizes U.S. national security. Now that it could jeopardize Biden’s political security, perhaps the White House will awaken.
Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.