North Korea's menacing nuclear threat is too dangerous to ignore. US must lead before time runs out

Regular drills and strengthening our bases are two ways US can limit nuclear dangers from North Korea

May 15, 2024

The warning light on the Korean peninsula is blinking red. American defense leaders are finding our nation unprepared for North Korea’s growing military capabilities and its strategic alignment with Russia and China. Choosing to ignore the issue, as the Biden administration has done, is no longer an option. 

Pyongyang has taken advantage of recent events, like the war in Ukraine, to forge a strong bond with Beijing and Moscow. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are stuffing North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s pocketbook.  

China and Russia trade with North Korea in open violation of international sanctions, well aware that they will face minimal consequences from the Biden administration and the international community. The deepened economic relationship undercuts the world’s ability to punish North Korea. 

With a padded wallet, Kim Jong Un is accomplishing two goals. Simultaneously, he is keeping his domestic situation stable and improving his military capabilities, which are now affecting people far beyond his borders.  

He sells ballistic missiles to Russia, and Putin wields them to kill Ukrainians. He provides Hamas with weapons, and the terrorists target innocent Israelis. Today, North Korea can create problems for the United States and our friends in ways we have not faced in the past.

North Korea’s growing stature also makes its military a greater threat. U.S. national security leaders have watched with increasing unease as North Korea develops more capable nuclear weapons. Its military even sent a nuclear-capable submarine to sea last year, adding retaliatory strikes to its nuclear toolbelt. 

All this makes Kim Jong Un more bullish than ever about waging a limited conflict with his neighbor to the south. In a speech at a North Korean military university, he repeated his public command for his military to get ready for war. North Korea just might decide it is time to settle territorial disputes along the western coast of the peninsula, an old source of tension between Pyongyang and Seoul. 

Americans may not have paid enough attention to North Korea, but our friends in South Korea and Japan certainly have been keeping a close watch. In particular, they are monitoring how the U.S. intends to strengthen deterrence against the antagonist North. 

The source of such a plan should be found in our National Defense Strategy (NDS), a document produced by the Department of Defense every four years. It outlines how the U.S. military will implement the president’s national security plan.  

However, our current plan was built with a more reclusive North Korea in mind. The NDS does not anticipate a North Korea capable of such wide-ranging disruptive capability. As Kim Jong Un begins to play in a bigger sandbox, our military must adjust and do so with urgency. 

That adaptation begins by improving our military strength on the Korean peninsula which involves two initial steps. 

First, we must modernize our military bases and infrastructure in South Korea. For decades, we have been able to box in North Korea with our overwhelming conventional superiority. But deteriorating facilities are eroding our strength. We would begin restoring it by updating the 50-year-old structures housing 30,000 U.S. service members. 

Second, we must continue regular joint U.S.-South Korean military drills. The practice is far more than a show of force. It guarantees that the U.S. and South Korean militaries can fight as one if duty calls. 

Next, we must deal with the long-term implications of the shifting nuclear balance in East Asia. North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal — coupled with the massive expansion of China’s nuclear and long-range missile capabilities — means that the region is becoming far more dangerous for the U.S. and our allies. 

Maintaining stability starts by reinforcing American strength. Last year, we saw a particularly cinematic example of how this can be done. The USS Kentucky, one of our ballistic-missile submarines, surfaced off the Korean coast with its devastating nuclear payload in tow. As it emerged from the depths, the vessel sent an unmistakable message: The U.S. will act to keep peace. 

We could make the same point by boosting our U.S. nuclear forces and those of our allies in the Indo-Pacific theater. We should also establish nuclear burden-sharing agreements in the region, as NATO does in its territory.  

These are among the many unanimous recommendations of the Strategic Posture Commission, which Congress established to assess the strengths and weaknesses of U.S. nuclear strategy. The commission believes these actions would offset our adversaries’ nuclear expansion. The Biden administration should heed their advice. 

Doing so is more important now than it has been in the past three decades. The end of the Cold War changed the way the U.S. placed its nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pacific.  

U.S. leaders hoped, for example, that removing our nuclear arms from South Korea would incentivize North Korea to stop production of its own. Instead, the security situation both on the peninsula and in the Pacific has become significantly worse.  

It is time to pay attention to the blinking red light and to rethink our forward nuclear posture. A free, democratic and prosperous South Korea – and the rest of the region – can be achieved only through U.S. leadership.