The Joe Biden administration has its hands full as it juggles responses to both the war in Ukraine and the conflict between Israel and Hamas while keeping an eye on cross-strait tensions in the run-up to Taiwan’s January 2024 presidential elections.
It is understandable that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s claims that he now has eyes on the White House, the Pentagon, and critical U.S. naval centers in the region following a successful satellite launch during Thanksgiving week might have generated the equivalent of a yawn from the White House, even as Kim’s sister Yo Jong once again reiterated North Korea’s distaste for dialogue with the United States.
But there should be concern that an escalation of inter-Korean tensions on the ground following North Korea’s successful launch might turn the Korean Peninsula into another international security flashpoint and a possible breaking point for global stability.
Security dynamics on the Korean Peninsula have quietly been on a downward trajectory during the past year. North Korea launches long-range missiles with impunity due to UN Security Council paralysis arising from U.S.-Russia tensions and U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un has maintained domestic political control by surviving both the humiliation of the February 2019 Trump-Kim Hanoi summit failure and the self-quarantine imposed in response to the pandemic.
Kim has discovered post-pandemic that the new environment shaped by major power rivalry has provided greater maneuverability to evade UN sanctions and exploit Russia’s need for munitions amid the war in Ukraine. Putin has relieved Kim’s isolation, assisted North Korea with a new source of funding and technical support for its military modernization, and provided a form of legitimation for North Korea as an internationally accepted nuclear state.
But the immediate trigger for escalating inter-Korean tensions lies with the tit-for-tat dynamic exemplified in both the inter-Korean satellite race and the decision by both sides to step back from a 2018 military agreement North Korea signed with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in.
Following North Korea’s satellite launch, the Yoon administration announced that it would no longer be bound by provisions of the 2018 arms accord that restricted South Korean forces from utilizing equipment near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) to monitor North Korean activities. In response, North Korea is restoring and rearming guard posts on the North Korean side of the DMZ.
Tit-for-tat escalation of tensions could generate an unwanted crisis similar to the 2015 escalation of tensions that occurred following injuries to South Korean soldiers from an undetected North Korean landmine placed near a South Korean guard post.
The Biden and Yoon administrations are working more closely than ever to coordinate peninsular and regional security and economic policies, motivated in part by a convergence of interests in safeguarding international stability based on the rule of law in an era of rising strategic competition. Moreover, President Yoon has taken steps to normalize South Korea’s relationship with Japan and overcome limitations on trilateral cooperation among the United States, Japan, and South Korea to meet common security threats.
Nonetheless, the commitment to institutionalize trilateral cooperation remains fragile, especially in the event of a political transition in the United States and/or South Korea to a more nationalistic America-First or Korea-first approach focusing on narrowly defined national needs to the exclusion of U.S.-South Korea alliance coordination.
Despite rising geopolitical rivalry and shared security threats, the United States and South Korea remain vulnerable to threats from within. The risk of conflict between allies is magnified by deepening domestic political polarization in both countries. Those trends may impede the ability of the alliance to operate effectively despite mutual interests in working together as international security, economic, and technology partners, as I argue in my new book: The U.S.-South Korea Alliance: Why It May Fail and Why It Must Not.
Ironically, the very convergence of interest that has enabled the Biden and Yoon administrations to work closely with each other runs the risk of becoming a liability for alliance cooperation. This would happen if one side or the other comes to be viewed as the exclusively preferred partner in managing shared alliance interests rather than political opposition leaders who might espouse nationalist or isolationist political platforms. Such developments would be particularly unsettling against the backdrop of geopolitical rivalry that makes the U.S.-South Korea alliance vital not only on the Korean Peninsula but also in addressing international conflicts around the world.