North Korea’s missile madness must have consequences

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With the US already distracted for months by the war in Europe, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is largely free to accelerate his weapons programs. President Joe Biden – along with US allies Japan and South Korea – must make life harder for him.

Kim’s scientists have conducted 16 missile tests since the beginning of the year, possibly including a failed launch of a giant Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile. Another nuclear test may be imminent. If left unchecked, North Korea could eventually deploy a range of delivery systems, from multi-warhead ICBMs to nuclear-armed hypersonic gliders and sea-launched ballistic missiles. A beefed-up arsenal could surpass US missile defenses, allow Kim to threaten US cities with a nuclear strike, and raise doubts as to whether the US will come to the aid of South Korea or Japan in a conflict.

Kim has little reason to slow down. Loose enforcement of sanctions by China and Russia continues to help the North Korean leader maintain power and fund his weapons programs. The war in Ukraine has underlined what can happen to countries that give up their nuclear deterrent. Moreover, the continued flow of flashy test launches gives the regime something to brag about internally, at a time when the economy appears to be reeling.

At the same time, however, the US and its Asian allies are arguably better positioned to confront Kim than before. The election of conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol has strategically brought South Korea closer to Japan and the US than it has been in years. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and Chinese threats over Taiwan have prompted leaders in Tokyo to take a much more muscular stance on defense than once seemed possible. Also in Washington, a strong bipartisan consensus supports strengthening the US military stance in Asia. All three countries seem more willing to risk tensions with China in pursuit of their goals.

When he visits South Korea and Japan this month, Biden must push for a more coordinated and forceful effort to contain the north. The first priority should be to cut off the flow of funds, materials and parts North Korea needs to build its missiles and mobile launchers. The US should be just as willing to impose secondary sanctions on Chinese companies and banks for helping North Korea as it is for helping Russia. Treasury and cybersecurity officials should redouble their efforts to thwart the North’s cyber-theft operations, which are estimated to generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The three allies must also work together to improve their defensive and offensive capabilities. The US should support Yoon’s desire to resume joint military exercises, deploy additional missile defenses to protect Seoul and accelerate development of an internal interception system similar to Israel’s Iron Dome. While it would be unwise to deploy US nuclear weapons on the peninsula, as many South Korean conservatives want, the Biden administration should help both Tokyo and Seoul improve their capacity to disrupt North Korean missile launches and launch launchers. destroy in a crisis.

All this should not mean closing the door to diplomacy. Indeed, the US could propose specific sanctions relief or other incentives if Kim agrees to a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. However, the North Korean leader is more likely to return to the table if the costs of not doing so mount.

More from other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Why Japan and Germany are ready to fight again: Ian Buruma

Why so many countries are sitting out the new cold war: Pankaj Mishra

To Save Democracy and Beat Putin, Give Up ‘The West’: Andreas Kluth

The editorial board serves on the editorial board of Bloomberg Opinion.

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