Security Brief: PACOM Week of May 3, 2021
Week of May 3, 2021 | Issue 12
Charlotte Morton, PACOM
DPRK leader Kim Jong-un
Date: April 15, 2021 - April 27, 2021
Location: North Korea
Parties involved: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK); DPRK Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un; Korean People’s Army (KPA); Republic of Korea (ROK)
The event: North Korea has shown signs of resumed air strike drills at its military training range that is modeled after South Korea’s presidential residency known as Blue House (Cheongwadae). Satellite imagery shows two freshly painted targets on mountainsides near the Blue House replica on April 15, but it is unclear from the footage if the airstrike practice had already been carried out. It is suspected that the drills will take place in early May following Pyongyang’s Youth League congress on April 27. The DPRK leader Kim Jong-un has been present at drills at the replica Blue House in the past, with the last reported incident in late 2016.
North Korea’s relations with South Korea are currently at a low point so the military drills will be a show of force by the DPRK towards the ROK. The airstrike drills are designed to simulate a potential raid mission into Seoul, which is a threat to South Korea’s national security. The anticipated drills are likely to add to the growing tension between North Korea and South Korea amid an intensifying arms race between the two countries. In April 2021, South Korea unveiled the prototype of the KF-21 fighter jet following the recent announcement of plans to obtain combat helicopters from the United States and the development of a short-range ballistic missile. The increased military spending and capabilities by South Korea indicates the country’s resolution to counter the threats presented by North Korea. However, the provocative military activity on both sides of the Korean border poses a direct risk to civilians.
The timing and reporting of the KPA’s drills is sensitive because if the drills are openly recognized, the governments of South Korea and the United States would perceive them as extremely challenging. Kim Jong-un is more likely to withhold the reporting of the drills in the media in order to reduce international condemnation, while still taking a threatening stance towards neighboring South Korea.
Date: April 30, 2021
Location: Washington, United States
Parties involved: United States; People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK); Republic of Korea (ROK); US President Joe Biden; Kim Jong-un; China
The event: The White House announced on Friday, April 30, that the Biden administration had completed a months-long review of its DPRK policy, resulting in a strategy of diplomacy and stern deterrence to address the military threat posed by the country. The proposed strategy will attempt to establish a middle ground between the Trump and Obama administration’s unsuccessful attempts to persuade the DPRK to stall its nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang responded on Sunday, May 2, labeling Washington’s announcement as a hostile policy that focuses on the negative elements of the DPRK-US relationship, which the DPRK stated elicits a negative response.
The DPRK’s response to the recent US policy illustrates a greater issue of a fundamental disagreement between the two countries. The DPRK is unlikely to give up nuclear weapons while Kim Jong-un is in power, and the US is unlikely to back down against nuclear-armed and human rights-abusing DPRK. This poses barriers in establishing civil relations between the North and South. Moreover, this will likely be exacerbated by continued US efforts to reduce the DPRK’s military threat and hostile response.
The US recent policy announcement precedes President Biden’s planned meeting with ROK President Jae-in on May 21, which will attempt to establish greater engagement with the DPRK. The talks will come after previously failed discussions with the Trump administration, which resulted in the ROK’s continued economic sanctions on the DPRK. The ROK is determined to reduce the threat posed by the neighboring DPRK, so the Biden administration’s recent policy will be a relief to the ROK. The US DPRK policy refers to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, rather than the denuclearization of the DPRK, which may make it easier to engage in talks with Pyongyang because the language change puts less emphasis on the DPRK solely. Ahead of the US-ROK meeting in Washington on May 21, there is the possibility that the DPRK will create renewed military tension. This would influence how the US and ROK address the DPRK’s military threat because if the talks alone elicit a threatening response from North Korea, working towards denuclearization will require greater diplomatic patience and/or an increased military presence in the ROK.
The US DPRK policy also called on China to use its diplomatic and economic influence to pressure Pyongyang to consider denuclearization. It is in China’s interests to assist in the denuclearization of the DPRK because the ballistic missile program destabilizes the entire region and could affect China. Additionally, China is obliged by the United Nations Security Council resolutions to enforce sanctions imposed due to the DPRK’s nuclear and missile testing. In March, China stated its continued objective to establish cooperation with the DPRK to reduce the nuclear threat and, while it has not been stated explicitly, it is expected that this is the position they will continue to take following the Biden administration’s recent DPRK policy.
Date: May 5, 2021
Location: London, United Kingdom
Parties involved: United States; ROK; Japan; US Secretary of State Antony Blinken; Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi; South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong.
The event: The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Japanese and ROK counterparts Toshimitsu Motegi and Chung Eui-yong on May 5 to establish their cooperation regarding North Korea, during a G7 meeting. The three countries agreed to use trilateral cooperation in an attempt to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
The historical tension between ROK and Japan, stemming from Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean peninsula and the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute, had the potential to hamper cooperation. In 2019, relations between the two countries deteriorated after ROK terminated an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan on North Korea. One potential reason for the successful cooperation regarding North Korea in 2021 is the US emphasis on bringing the allies together, which is a part of its recently renewed policy to seek practical progress with North Korea. In order for this to occur, all three countries need to cooperate. However, such cooperation will pose challenges given the respective national interests and capabilities of the US, ROK, and Japan.
The challenges that the US-ROK-Japan alliance is facing are the realistic capabilities of each country to prevent DPRK threats, which is determined by its military budget and diplomatic relations. The US and ROK reached an agreement on May 8 to share the cost of defense in the ROK, in which US military operations would receive greater funding to be based in the ROK. This comes a year after then-President Trump reportedly rejected the offer, which harmed the US-ROK alliance. A similar cost sharing arrangement was proposed by Japan in 2020, and implemented in 2021, to host US troops in Japan. The proposed US-ROK cost-sharing agreement will aid the bilateral alliance, which is necessary to counter the risks posed by the DPRK, including any military tension present ahead of the US-ROK meeting in late May.
 North Korea shows sign of airstrike drill around replica South Korean Blue House, NK News, April 2021, https://www.nknews.org/pro/north-korea-shows-sign-of-airstrike-drill-around-replica-south-korean-blue-house/
 A Quiet Arms Race Is Rapidly Heating Up Between the Two Koreas, New York Times, April 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/world/asia/korea-missiles-arms-race.html
 North Korea says Biden policy shows hostile U.S. intent, vows response, Reuters, May 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/n-korea-says-biden-policy-shows-us-intent-being-hostile-kcna-2021-05-01/
 Seoul official forecasts ‘low possibility’ of North Korean military tension, NK News, May 2021, https://www.nknews.org/2021/05/seoul-official-forecasts-low-possibility-of-north-korean-military-tension/
 White House completes North Korea policy review, Independent, April 2021, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/white-house-completes-north-korea-policy-review-north-korea-biden-jen-psaki-kim-jong-un-white-house-b1840453.html
 Blinken Urges China to Convince North Korea to Denuclearize, US News World Report, March 2021, https://www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2021-03-17/nkorea-ignores-us-offer-for-talks-citing-its-hostile-policy
 US, Japan, South Korea pledge cooperation on North Korea, Channel News Asia, May 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/us-japan-south-korea-pledge-cooperation-on-north-korea-14748440
 Japan and U.S. reach agreement on cost of hosting American troops, Japan Times, February 2021, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/17/national/japan-us-troop-cost/