Responding to North Korea’s Nuclear Ambition: The Importance of US-Japan-ROK Cooperation

Eunjung Lim serves as an associate professor in the Division of International Studies at Kongju National University. Additionally, she holds positions as a board member of the Korea Institute of Nuclear Nonproliferation and Control and a member of the Policy Advisory Committee to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification. This article originated from a Perry World House workshop titled \”The Future of Nuclear Weapons, Statecraft, and Deterrence after Ukraine,\” which took place on April 4, 2023. The workshop was made possible, in part, through a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.

With the escalation of strategic competition between the United States and the People\’s Republic of China, the geopolitical landscape has witnessed a resurgence of tripolarity following Russia\’s invasion of Ukraine. Notably, Middle Eastern oil producers, including Saudi Arabia, are striving to maximize their national interests. Amidst this backdrop, Saudi Arabia and Iran have sought reconciliation with the mediation of China. Consequently, as the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran undergoes significant shifts, a reassessment of the analytical framework pertaining to the Middle East and energy-related geopolitics becomes imperative.

This intricate geopolitical situation poses considerable challenges for countries like South Korea, which have achieved economic development through manufacturing and exports without relying on indigenous natural resources, all while confronting a nuclear-armed North Korea. The United States and China find themselves locked in a consequential contest for technological dominance during the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The pandemic has greatly disrupted global supply chains, and the conflict in Ukraine has led to a rise in the prices of imported energy and food. These factors have exacerbated South Korea\’s trade balance. From South Korea\’s perspective, favorable relations among the United States, China, and even Russia, along with unhindered globalization, enable economic gains and a more innovative approach to the North Korean issue. Despite various constraints impeding South Korea\’s diplomatic maneuverability, this article will propose policy recommendations for addressing the North Korean nuclear problem.

North Korea\’s nuclear development has long posed a security threat not only to South Korea but also to Japan, the United States, and the wider East Asia region. Over the years, these countries have endeavored to solve this issue through initiatives such as the 1994 Agreed Framework, the longstanding Sunshine Policy, the Six-Party Talks, several inter-Korean summits, and two bilateral meetings between former US President Donald Trump and North Korea\’s Kim Jong-Un. Nevertheless, the problem remains unresolved.

Presently, the South Korean government\’s approach toward North Korea is referred to as the \”3D\” policy: Deterrence, Dissuasion, and Dialogue. This signifies South Korea\’s aim to enhance its ability to deter North Korea\’s threats, persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, and actively pursue dialogue. Under President Yoon Seok-Yeol\’s administration, the government has decided to strengthen military cooperation with Japan, building upon a robust alliance with the United States. In March 2023, President Yoon became the first Korean president in twelve years to visit Japan and hold bilateral talks with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. Furthermore, the 2+2 diplomatic and security dialogue resumed in April, after a five-year hiatus.

However, the current government\’s approach has faced criticism within South Korea. Critics argue that the initial two aspects of the \”3D\” policy (Deterrence and Dissuasion) may trigger an arms race, potentially pushing North Korea closer to China and Russia as the triangular military cooperation between South Korea, the US, and Japan solidifies. South Korea, akin to the United States, operates under a presidential system, thereby often experiencing political polarization on various issues. Consequently, it becomes exceedingly challenging to unite public opinion, particularly concerning North Korea and reunification.

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