SEOUL, Oct 31 (Reuters) – The prospect of a new North Korean nuclear test underscores the limited options available to Washington and its allies, who have embraced Pyongyang’s “deterrence” through major military exercises, which some current and former officials say could escalate tensions. .
South Korea said in October it would face an “unprecedented” response from allies for a new nuclear test – but it was unclear which measures would not retread old ground.
Years of sanctions, diplomatic pressure and a show of military power have not prevented North Korea from developing and expanding an arsenal of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles within reach of the United States.
Now that the North’s nuclear weapons are mature and in place, the US and its allies are looking to simply remove the North with military action.
South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup said last week that the focus of efforts to deal with North Korea should change from preventing the development of nuclear weapons to preventing their use.
“We plan to expand the scope of our involvement in intelligence sharing, planning, exercises and exercises,” he told a panel of lawmakers.
A ministry official told Reuters that Lee would not throw his support behind the idea of recognizing North Korea as a nuclear state, instead stressing the urgent need to prevent North Korea from using weapons.
“Lee is saying loudly what policymakers in Seoul and Washington are thinking — that denuclearization is the ultimate goal, and deterrence of North Korea is the priority here and now,” said Daniel Russell, a former senior US diplomat.
Focus on prevention
Asked about Lee’s comments, a US National Security Council spokesman said the US and South Korea were “in lockstep” in efforts to seek “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”.
“We continue to prioritize diplomacy, but at the same time continue to jointly prevent and work to limit the progress of (North Korea’s) illegal weapons programs,” the spokesman said.
Some analysts saw Lee’s comments as the latest sign that Washington and Seoul are coming to grips with the reality that North Korea is a nuclear state. But they noted that so far the focus has been on prevention rather than risk reduction, such as talks to limit the number of North Korean weapons and prevent their proliferation.
US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel declined to say what action Washington would take if North Korea tested a nuclear bomb for the first time since 2017, but cited sanctions and military exercises as examples of tools it could use to “hold North Korea accountable.”
Observers expect China and Russia to condemn a new nuclear test, but are unlikely to back new sanctions, which they say have failed and only hurt ordinary North Koreans.
The newly released US Nuclear Posture Review says Kim Jong Un’s regime would be destroyed if ever attacked with nuclear weapons.
‘Turn down the volume’
In early October, the commander of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet said the rare deployment of an aircraft carrier to South Korea “probably precipitated” part of a “protest” by Kim Jong Un.
Another major exercise began on Monday with hundreds of South Korean and US warplanes, including a rare deployment of American F-35B fighter jets.
The drills, a focus of allied response, have been met with new missile tests or military exercises by North Korea.
Patel called suggestions that the exercises exacerbated tensions “baloney”. Duyeon Kim, with the US-based Center for a New American Security, noted that rising tensions don’t always correlate with drills.
“Normalizing the joint exercises will strengthen preparedness and publicizing them again is intended to deter North Korea and reassure the South Korean people,” Kim said.
One senior former U.S. defense official told Reuters that while rapid drills ensure readiness, the publicity and chest-beating surrounding them can be counterproductive.
“They’re doing it because they want to send a message to North Korea that, hey, we mean business,” he said. “But it doesn’t help.”
While political leaders said exercises in previous years had been scaled up for diplomacy, the former official said, often meant the exercises were not publicized, and the current rhetoric seems to have gone too far in the other direction.
“One way to reduce stress is to turn the volume down a little and see if that helps.”
Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by David Brunstrom in Washington. Editing by Gerry Doyle
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