By Bumjoon Park
North Korea has conducted three intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests since the start of 2022 following a self-imposed moratorium on ICBM tests from late 2017, when North Korea diplomatically engaged with South Korea and the United States (US). In contrast to outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s policy of detente with North Korea, President-elect Yoon Seok-yeol promised a hardline response to North Korean provocations in line with the stance of previous conservative governments.
Arms race expected to intensify
The ongoing arms race is expected to intensify as North Korea and South Korea continue to strengthen their military capabilities. Even during the period of detente, or any period since the 1953 Korean War armistice, neither side has neglected the scaling up of its military capabilities over the other. North Korea has turned to nuclear weapons to offset the relative weakness of its armed forces vis-a-vis South Korea and the US since the end of the Cold War and loss of Soviet support, while South Korea has become one of the world’s largest spenders on conventional military capabilities.
With the backdrop of this arms race, the contemporary interaction of the two countries has followed two general trends depending on whether South Korea had a conservative or liberal president. Conservative governments questioned Pyongyang’s sincerity for peace and sought to deter North Korea’s military provocations, including nuclear and ICBM tests, by strengthening military ties with the US through large scale joint military exercises, involving strategic assets like the nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bomber and stationing advanced military hardware like the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defence system.
Pyongyang has responded to these actions by accusing Seoul and the US of war preparations, and further advancing its nuclear capabilities by developing and testing new nuclear delivery systems. Liberal governments on the other hand have dialed down military drills to pursue deescalation, seeking to build inter-Korean confidence through joint economic programs and ultimately a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War. Pyongyang has responded to such overtures as a way to ultimately seek the removal of the US military presence from the Korean Peninsula in exchange for reducing its nuclear weapons capabilities – but still short of complete denuclearisation. At this point, there are no indications that President-elect Yoon’s stance toward Pyongyang will be any different from previous conservative governments. Pyongyang has already resumed ICBM testing ahead of Yoon’s inauguration. In fact, there are factors that may intensify the arms buildup within the context of the strategic competition between the US and China in the wider Indo-Pacific region.
Previous South Korean governments tempered their reaction to North Korean provocations for, among other things, the sake of South Korea’s commercial ties with China, which has been its largest trade partner since 2003. Liberal governments especially sought China’s cooperation in approaching North Korea even as China has protested US military activities in and around the Korean Peninsula, indicating security concerns over the peninsula’s proximity to Beijing. However, Chinese bans from 2017 on the import of South Korean pop culture products and the organising of group tours to South Korea in response to the deployment of the US THAAD system in South Korea have soured relations.
While China is still South Korea’s largest trade partner, a gradual relocation of South Korean companies’ assets away from China and fostering of alternative trading partners for strategic goods have been underway. The US has likewise been increasingly decoupling technology and supply chains from China as well as sanctioning Chinese technology firms over security concerns. These actions could allow Seoul to be more resilient in withstanding Chinese pressure when strengthening its military, economic and diplomatic cooperation with the US. As a result, the return of regular US-South Korea joint military exercises as well as the development and sale of new weapons systems in South Korea are all likely throughout Yoon’s tenure with varying intensity subject to changes in South Korean public sentiment towards North Korea and the strength of Chinese objections. North Korea will likely continue to develop and build up its nuclear weapons and long-range missile capabilities as bargaining chips for the next round of negotiations with Seoul and the US.
Beijing is likely to continue vetoing North Korea sanctions and other measures against North Korea at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a check against the US military presence in and around the Korean Peninsula. Opportunities exist for rapprochement and greater cooperation between South Korea and Japan in regard to intelligence sharing and policy coordination against North Korea, but disputes over issues relating to Japan’s past colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, including those of “comfort women” and wartime forced labour, will continue to limit cooperation until Seoul and Tokyo agree to bypass such issues. At the very least, greater security cooperation is expected within the South Korea-US-Japan trilateral framework.
An arms race is expected to intensify as North Korea advances its nuclear weapons capabilities while the new conservative government of President Yoon in South Korea counters by developing conventional military capabilities and closer ties with the US amid the strategic competition between the US and China across the Indo-Pacific region.
Bumjoon Park is a Japan-based political and security risk analyst covering East Asia.