This week, cries of alarm about North Korea’s possible resumption of ICBM testing—or worse—will reverberate through the media. The coverage began on Sunday, when The New York Times brought out David Sanger, its star national security reporter, for a front-page screamer designed to bring the standoff in Northeast Asia to a Christmas boil.
American military and intelligence sources are “tracking North Korea’s actions by the hour” and “bracing for an imminent test of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching American shores,” Sanger reported. The crisis was inevitable because, over the past 18 months of sporadic talks between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the “North has bolstered its arsenal of missiles and its stockpile of bomb-ready nuclear material.”
But the Times, as it does frequently in its coverage of these talks, omitted key developments on the Korean Peninsula, including in the South, that have contributed to the current standoff.
Perhaps the most overlooked is the massive military buildup in South Korea over the past two years. On December 9, as tensions were rising once again, the South Korean Air Force released to the media a stunning video recreation of a preemptive attack on the North Korean ballistic missile network that Kim may soon test again.
The four-minute film was first broadcast on JTBC, a major television network. It shows South Korea’s crack pilots—who are heavily supplied with US-made weapons—finding and then pummeling a North Korean ICBM launch site with drones, missiles, heavy bombers, and stealth fighters. Among them are the Global Hawk, the giant surveillance aircraft made by Northrop Grumman, and stealth F-35A attack planes made by Lockheed Martin.
“The glory of victory is promised under any circumstances,” the narrator declares over a background of stirring martial music. The film portrays the Republic of Korea as a valiant, independent force, acting swiftly with its precision strike capabilities to destroy Pyongyang’s long-range Hwasong-14 ICBM, which North Korea first tested in 2017 and which US and ROK officials fear it may test again.
The film is a reminder that South Korea, through its alliance with the United States, has built one of the most powerful armed forces in the world—the seventh largest, according to a recent survey—and outspends its rival to the North, the 18th largest, by a ratio of five to one. It also underscores the determination of President Moon Jae-in, a former special forces soldier who set the denuclearization talks in motion with his famous Olympic diplomacy in 2018, to defend his nation’s security at all costs.
But it’s also a sign of a US-led military buildup in Northeast Asia that has raised tensions in the region to an alarming degree, even as North Korea threatens to resume the ballistic-missile testing that sparked the last crisis on the peninsula, in 2017. The buildup includes:
- The US military’s tests of missiles previously banned under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the arms agreement abandoned by the Trump administration.
- The massive military machine built by South Korea in recent years, as illustrated in the ROK Air Force video. It has been fueled by massive purchases of sophisticated US weapons that have been pushed by US think tanks with ties to the US arms industry.
- The simultaneous and rapid expansion of US and Japanese military capabilities in Northeast Asia designed to confront North Korea, curb China’s growing military prowess, and enhance Washington’s strategic position in the region.
Taken together, these developments signal a dangerous escalation of tensions—a realization that may even be dawning on US national security reporters.
“The Trump administration’s shadow war with North Korea is set to intensify in the next three weeks, as Pyongyang appears to be preparing an end to its more than 18-month moratorium on testing of its nuclear program, and as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s self-imposed year-end deadline for diplomacy draws near,” CBS News’s Margaret Brennan reported on December 13.
That story was one in a series of alarming reports about the North’s latest testings of new rocket engines at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, which Kim shut down in 2018 as a concession to Trump. Those tests, and a series of 15 short- and medium-range missile launches earlier this year, are universally seen as underscoring Kim’s determination to abandon the denuclearization negotiations and find a “new path” in 2020 unless the United States puts forward fresh proposals that the Kim regime finds acceptable.
“The dialogue touted by the U.S. is, in essence, nothing but a foolish trick hatched to keep the DPRK bound to dialogue and use it in favor of the political situation and election in the U.S.,” Ri Thae Song, North Korea’s vice foreign minister for US affairs, said earlier this month, using the country’s official name. “What is left to be done now is the U.S. option, and it is entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get.”
In response, Trump has said that Kim could lose “everything” if he ended his self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, and recently revived his threats of tough military action. “If we have to, we will do it,” he said on December 3. And last week, Gen. Charles Brown, the top US Air Force commander in the Asia-Pacific region, predicted that Kim’s promised gift will most likely be “a long range ballistic missile.”
Many US analysts, such as Fox analyst Harry Kazianis, believe such a test is imminent, possibly as early as Christmas Day. They also see Kim’s latest missile and engine tests as sure signs that the North is not, in fact, getting rid of its nuclear weapons. “Reversible steps are being reversed, and North Korea is essentially ‘renuclearizing,’” Vipin Narang, an MIT security studies professor, tweeted after the latest Sohae test.
But, as Trump’s recent demands to expand US nuclear capabilities show, so is the USA. And to those who follow the region closely, the signs of a US “shadow war” are everywhere.
The most obvious is the acceleration of US surveillance of North Korea from bases in Okinawa and Guam, thus allowing the intelligence tracking “by the hour” alluded to by Sanger. In the latest such incident, on December 19, the Pentagon dispatched a Navy EP-3E surveillance plane over the peninsula; it was preceded four days earlier by an Air Force RC-135S Cobra Ball surveillance and reconnaissance plane.
A week earlier, on December 11, the US Air Force flew an RQ-4 Global Hawk over Korea, while the Pentagon ordered a strategic B-52H Stratofortress bomber capable of nuclear strikes to patrol the adjoining seas off Japan. The Stratofortress was accompanied by a KC-135 refueling aircraft, which can keep bombers in the air for days.
In recent weeks, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reports, the United States has also deployed the Navy’s P-3C maritime surveillance plane and an RC-135U Combat Sent (which the USAF says “provides strategic electronic reconnaissance information to the president, secretary of defense [and] Department of Defense leaders”). Yonhap noted that “the B-52H, a long-range and large-payload multirole bomber, is one of the U.S. Air Force’s principal strategic assets.” In fact, the frightening sight of a B-52 over Korean skies has been a favorite US signal of its determination and destructive powers for decades.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has started testing a new series of ballistic missiles designed to counter Chinese and Iranian weapons but also perfectly capable of striking North Korea. The latest test of a land-based missile, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on December 12, was the second test of a weapon banned under the INF treaty. The first involved a Tomahawk cruise missile deployed on US warships and submarines.
“Top Pentagon officials have wanted to deploy the previously banned INF missiles to the Western Pacific to counter China’s military expansion and provocations in the South China Sea,” Fox News reported. “The missiles could be deployed to Guam, and within range of mainland China.” That’s also where the B-52s that regularly fly over and close to Korea are based.
These moves reflect a general escalation of US capabilities around the world under Trump. Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader who signed the INF treaty with President Reagan, told Japan’s Asahi Shimbun that the recent US missile tests illustrate that the Americans are “striving to free themselves of any obligations with respect to weapons and obtain absolute military supremacy.”
For North Korea, however, the deployment of new strategic missiles in Northeast Asia could be a game changer. “Even though this missile will be conventional, it stands to upend North Korea’s strategy in ways that could be immensely destabilizing,” Ankit Panda, an arms control analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote last month. What made the banned missiles so dangerous, he noted, “was their promptness.”
Before the INF treaty, said Panda, “in a matter of minutes, a U.S. Pershing II ballistic missile could have decapitated the Soviet leadership.” Gorbachev and Reagan, he added, “understood that these missiles would push both sides to undertake exceedingly dangerous postures that would, in a crisis, make nuclear weapons use and escalation to a full-scale nuclear war more likely.”
Kim is clearly concerned, Panda concluded, pointing to a statement this past August from the North Korean foreign ministry that cited “U.S. testing of nuclear and strategic missile defense systems, including an ICBM, a submarine-launched ballistic missile, and the homeland missile defense system in 2019.”
But the North is also acutely aware of the South’s massive capabilities, which will soon expand. In recent months, according to South Korean press accounts, the ROK military has announced that it will acquire 20 more advanced F-35s and a fleet of Seahawk helicopters from Lockheed Martin that are designed for anti-submarine warfare. The South is also building a new assault ship, described as a “light aircraft carrier,” that will be capable of carrying F-35B fighter jets.
When the first US F-35s were introduced last summer, North Korea’s KCNA denounced Seoul for escalating tensions by “enhancing the Air Force’s operational capabilities to enable surprise attack against us.” The state media site said, “The South Korean government has the duty and responsibility to stop all activities that could become a source of tension on the Korean Peninsula, such as bringing in war equipment.”
As a result, President Moon’s government has been careful not to publicize recent acquisitions. Earlier this month, when the Korean Air Force took possession of its latest stealth F-35s, it held a “low-key” ceremony behind closed doors, the conservative daily Chosun Ilbo reported. And as the date drew near to take delivery of the new Global Hawk drones pictured in the ROK Air Force film, the government kept the entire process under wraps. “There will be none of the usual brass bands and ceremonial marking the purchase and handover, and the government will not announce the date of the drones’ arrival,” Chosun noted (as it predicted, the drones were delivered Monday with virtually no public notice).
There is no such hesitancy in Japan, which has also been expanding its military capabilities under the leadership of conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
According to Navy Times, Japanese military spending “is expected to set a new record next year as the country deepens its military alliance with the U.S. and spends more on expensive American stealth fighters and other equipment amid threats from China and North Korea.”
Under its latest, $50 billion military budget, the publication said, Japan is buying new F-35B stealth fighter jets, along with “105 F-35As, for a total F-35 fleet of 147—the largest number of any country outside the U.S., and, critics say, more than is needed for a country committed to self-defense.” In addition, Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Forces is deploying two US-built Aegis surveillance ships in the Sea of Japan and East China Sea and is reconfiguring one of its destroyers to serve as an aircraft carrier to be used in part by US Marine F-35B fighter jets. The “higher levels of integration between the two militaries could increase the risk of Japan becoming embroiled in a U.S.-led conflict,” Navy Times concluded.
At the moment, the most likely foe in such a conflict is Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, which sees itself as surrounded by the massive military forces of the United States, South Korea, and Japan.
Despite the recent tensions between Tokyo and Seoul and the Moon government’s cancellation of a bilateral intelligence-sharing agreement, the US allies remain a formidable deterrent to the North. That’s one of the reasons Kim chose to engage with the United States over its nuclear weapons last year, and why it seeks security guarantees that would prevent the powerful military alliance from attacking and destroying his regime (it’s also why the DPRK has grown increasingly critical of South Korea as Pyongyang’s negotiations with Trump have floundered).
These are all factors to consider as Kim’s New Year’s deadline approaches. Over the past few days, Stephen Biegun, the chief US negotiator with North Korea, was in Seoul and Beijing to discuss next steps and head off a year-end crisis. On Monday, President Moon will also be in China holding a summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping before a trilateral meeting with China and Japan. South Korean progressives are urging him to take a more active role in the peace process.
“If North Korea and the US’ brinkmanship leads to a complete rupture, tensions on the Korean Peninsula will escalate to unprecedented levels, with South Korea ultimately suffering the greatest harm,” the newspaper Hankyoreh warned in a recent editorial.
To avoid a Christmas surprise, even Democrats who have been quite hawkish on North Korea are urging a turn away from military preparations. “It would be a severe miscalculation to believe that a resumption of ‘fire and fury’ threats and other attempts at nuclear coercion against North Korea, which can increase the risk of a catastrophic war, can lead to better results than the negotiating table,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and seven other senators wrote in a letter to Trump released last week.
Even while lauding “our alliances with the Republic of Korea and Japan,” the letter calls for a “sequenced” and “phased process” of denuclearization that has been embraced by both Koreas in their own bilateral talks. The senators said such an approach could lead to an interim deal that would be “an important effort to create the sort of real and durable diplomatic process that is necessary to achieve the complete denuclearization of North Korea.”
On the same day, however, the Senate also passed a bipartisan measure that would expand US sanctions on North Korea and impose a secondary boycott on banks that do business with the North. “Kim Jong-un is a ruthless thug whose nuclear & missile programs threaten us & our Asian allies,” Senator Pat Toomey tweeted in introducing the measure. “The best way [to] make him reverse course is through crippling sanctions.” The new language is part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
That is unlikely to work, however. Kim and his government have made clear in countless statements that they can survive and even thrive under US sanctions. And on Monday, CNN’s Will Ripley, one of the best-sourced reporters covering North Korea, predicted from conversations he’s had that Kim’s “gift” will not be an ICBM but the abandonment of his negotiations with Trump and “consolidating Pyongyang’s status as a nuclear weapons state.” According to his sources, “Pyongyang will also no longer pursue sanctions relief as a means of achieving economic development either in the short-term or long-term, but will instead increase its commitment to the state’s ideology of self-reliance, known as Juche.” How Trump might react to an ICBM test or Kim’s rejection is a major unknown. But Kazianis, the analyst certain of a North Korean missile test, said he has been told by White House officials that the president would see it as a personal insult. “Personal relationships to Trump are everything,” Kazianis reported on Monday. “Going back on a promise would make the president rethink the relationship.”
For Korea peace advocates, the key to ending the military buildup in Northeast Asia is a comprehensive agreement that would end the state of war on the peninsula (that was made clear to me by a recent South Korea delegation to New York and Washington). It was also a dominant theme in the latest policy statement on Korea from the newly formed Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which opened its doors this month and hopes to change the terms of debate in Washington about national security.
“To chart a new path toward peace, President Trump should state that the United States is no longer engaged in a war with North Korea and that it is willing to take steps to formalize a peaceful bilateral relationship,” wrote analyst Jessica Lee. “Ending the war would address Pyongyang’s perennial insecurities against external threats that has driven it to embrace weapons of mass destruction in the first place.”
To press that message, Korea Peace Now, a coalition of groups that includes Women Cross DMZ, is organizing a national action in March 2020 to call for a formal end to the war, a peace treaty that would require the involvement of China, and “tangible de-militarization including denuclearization, removal of landmines, and reduction of bases/troops.” With the peninsula headed into another potential crisis, that may be the only way to end America’s longest war.