SEOUL, South Korea — Russia’s war in Ukraine rages on. China has doubled down on its promise to take Taiwan. In the United States, clashes between Democrats and Republicans have hardened political divisions. With the Biden administration occupied on multiple fronts, North Korea, a tiny, isolated nation of 25 million people, has seemed determined to make Washington pay attention, its leader, Kim Jong Un, warning that the United States should no longer consider itself a “unipolar” superpower in a new “cold war.”
Kim has spent much of the year antagonizing the United States and its allies, testing a record number of missiles — 86 — and even rehearsing to fire a nuclear missile at South Korea. In a single day this month, North Korea fired 23 missiles, one of which crashed into waters only 35 miles off South Korea’s east coast, prompting islanders to seek shelter underground. It has flown Soviet-era war planes and launched hundreds of artillery shells near the border with South Korea in recent weeks, in addition to firing an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan.
With Russia hinting at threats to use nuclear weapons and relations between Washington and Beijing worsening, Kim most likely senses opportunity: In an increasingly destabilized world, there is no better time to test his weapons, show off his advancing technology and provoke his enemies with virtual impunity while trying to gain diplomatic leverage.
“North Korea has been shooting whatever it wanted to shoot; it has been testing whatever it wanted to test,” said Lee Seong-Hyon, a senior fellow and North Korea expert at the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. “But we are in a time when neither the United States nor South Korea can do much about it.”
By Kim’s own admission, North Korea’s economy is suffering mightily, hit by years of U.N. sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic. But Kim, 38, who assumed power more than a decade ago, seems to see the geopolitical tide turning in his favor. During a parliamentary speech last year, he described a “neo-cold war” emerging around the globe. In another speech, he encouraged his country to prepare for “the change from a unipolar world advocated by the U.S. into a multipolar world,” in which China and other U.S. adversaries lead as equals.
These developments have raised hopes in Pyongyang that North Korea could again enjoy the sort of financial and military support it used to get from Beijing and Moscow during the old Cold War, analysts said. “No country welcomes a new cold war like North Korea, because it increases its strategic value to China and Russia,” Lee said. “To an isolated and underdeveloped country like North Korea that sees itself as in a constant standoff with external enemies, no environment is conducive to its survival like a cold war.” There is a school of thought in which the Cold War never ended and that the dividing line between the two Koreas, known as the Demilitarized Zone, is a symbol of the unfinished business of dueling great powers. (The Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953, meaning the two nations are technically still at war.) The Kim dynasty’s survival plan has long been tied to its nuclear weapons program and promise of economic development in the face of Western admonishment.
Kim views his nuclear arsenal as essential to ensuring his regime’s security and keeping an upper hand over South Korea, which he ridicules as a modern vassal state that takes its cues from Washington. Not only does Kim expect a bigger nuclear arsenal to help cement his domestic leadership, but he also seems to believe it will increase his bargaining power, should negotiations with the United States pick up again.
After multiple rounds of failed talks and more recent invitations to spin them up again that went unanswered, Washington has become increasingly skeptical that serious negotiations with Pyongyang remain possible, leaving North Korea more determined than ever to demand its attention.
Washington, Seoul and Tokyo say North Korea may conduct a nuclear weapons test, its seventh, at any time. If it does, Washington and its allies may find their hands tied in seeking to impose penalties.
This month, the U.N. Security Council was unable to push through new sanctions against the North in response to its recent missile tests, which violated U.N. resolutions. China and Russia, two veto-wielding powers on the council, objected to the Washington-led proposal.
Playing one superpower against another is a game North Korea knows well. When Kim began his diplomacy with President Donald Trump in 2018, he hedged his bet by meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping first. Xi, whose relationship with Kim until then had looked patchy at times, was eager to keep the North as a buffer between China and U.S. military installations in South Korea. As relations between Washington and Beijing deteriorate, Xi appears more eager than ever to keep Pyongyang in his orbit.
Kim’s unprecedented diplomatic dalliance with Trump helped the young leader reassert his country’s geopolitical value to China. Xi visited Pyongyang in 2019, after the Trump-Kim talks collapsed, and said he would help address North Korea’s security and economic concerns “to the best of my ability.” When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went to Taiwan in August, North Korea returned China’s favor by calling the visit an “impudent interference” in Beijing’s “internal affairs.”
Kim also saw an advantage in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has been aligning his country more closely with Moscow. North Korea is one of the few nations to officially back the invasion. This month, Washington accused the North of covertly shipping artillery shells to Russia to aid in its war effort. (Pyongyang and Moscow have both denied this.) Both Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin have recently threatened to use nuclear weapons if they felt their country at risk.
While the North’s record-breaking provocations this year may suggest a bolder, more powerful Kim, some analysts say the burst of missile launches — as well as the decision to scramble the North’s decrepit, Soviet-era military aircraft — may reflect growing anxiety in the country. “Kim Jong Un cannot afford a costly, protracted confrontation with Washington,” said Park Won-gon, a North Korea expert at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “So he is mobilizing everything he has got to achieve a quick breakthrough. What we see is a familiar pattern of North Korea resorting to brinkmanship.”
Kim’s ultimate goal, some analysts say, is to have his country recognized as a credible nuclear power and to engage Washington in arms reduction talks, hoping to trade away only part of his nuclear arsenal in return for sanctions relief. North Korea has been testing new missiles in recent years, Kim probably thinking that an expanded arsenal will increase his leverage at the bargaining table.
North Korea has said it can hit the United States with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. But analysts have questioned that claim, as the country has never flown its missiles for their full intercontinental ranges nor has it demonstrated that its missiles can survive the violent reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere after soaring into space. Still, Kim’s determination to expand his country’s arsenal has deepened fears that North Korean nuclear technology could end up in the hands of U.S. adversaries or prompt South Korea to consider going nuclear. (Seoul officially denies any intention to build nuclear weapons of its own.)
The United States reaffirmed its commitment to defend South Korea by strengthening the two countries’ joint military exercises this year after the drills had been scaled back by Trump and hobbled by the pandemic. The North has used the return of those exercises as an excuse to test as many weapons as possible.
Since 2019, the country has tested an array of new, mostly short-range missiles, some designed to fly at hypersonic speeds or to maneuver during flight. They have been launched at random hours and from various locations — including trains and an underwater silo — to make them harder to intercept.
If the North Koreans resume nuclear tests, they may test small, lighter “tactical” nuclear warheads that the country plans to mount on its newer, short-range missiles, increasing the threat against U.S. allies in the region, South Korean defense officials say.
Testing them is not only a political matter but also a technical one. “They must be technically prepared,” said Shin Beom-chul, a vice defense minister of South Korea, in a television interview broadcast last month. “It may not be a one-time test. North Korea may conduct two or three tests in a row.”