North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is seizing on the current moment of global distractions — from Russia’s war in Ukraine to rising China-Taiwan tensions and the still potent COVID-19 pandemic — to advance his nuclear and missile capabilities with little response from the U.S. and its allies, a top former National Security Council official warns.
“I think Kim sees this as an opportune time to continue to make progress both on the missile and nuclear front,” said Allison Hooker, who helped shape U.S. policy toward North Korea in both the Obama and Trump administrations, last serving as an adviser to former President Donald Trump and a senior National Security Council director for Asia.
“The world is distracted, the globe is distracted,” Ms. Hooker emphasized during a panel discussion this week, noting that U.S. intelligence has been warning since May that a nuclear bomb test by North Korea may be imminent, the first in five years, and a lengthy string of smaller ballistic and cruise missile tests this year.
Ms. Hooker told “The Washington Brief,” a virtual, monthly event series hosted by The Washington Times Foundation, that the North Korean leader “feels very unencumbered” at the moment.
“The regime’s main goal through the decades has been recognition as a nuclear weapons state,” she said. “That’s what they’ve been advancing toward even since the mid-1990s, and they feel unencumbered now to advance toward this goal.”
Describing North Korea as “a master of timing,” Ms. Hooker said Mr. Kim likely is seeking to “maximize the impact of this test” and is weighing a range of factors, including the upcoming U.S. midterms and the recent Chinese Communist Party Congress that effectively gave Chinese President Xi Jinping a historic third five-year term in power.
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Mr. Kim is also anticipating repercussions, including potential sanctions or military moves by the U.S. and its allies that a nuclear test is likely to trigger, she said, adding that it is possible the North Korean leader has chosen to achieve other new weapons advancements prior to executing a nuclear test.
Mr. Kim used a January 2021 speech to publicize his goals of developing solid fuel, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICMBs), a solid fuel submarine-launched ICBM, tactical nuclear weapons, high-yield hydrogen bombs, and nuclear submarines, as well as sea-based nuclear forces.
At the same time, Ms. Hooker said, the North Korean leader “enjoys the element of surprise and when we’re expecting something from him, I think he likes to do something different and take the world by surprise.”
If North Korea moves ahead with a test, it would be the Kim regime’s first since 2017 and the seventh overall since 2006.
U.S., South Korean and Japanese diplomats have declared such a test will be met with an “unparalleled” response, South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Hyun-dong told a joint news conference in Tokyo on Oct. 26 after meeting with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Mori.
But the Biden administration has not clarified what an “unparalleled” response would entail. Following North Korea’s 2017 nuclear test, then-President Trump ordered three U.S. aircraft carriers — the USS Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz — to waters off the Korean Peninsula as a show of force to the Kim regime.
Ms. Hooker said she hopes the Biden administration has a plan in place to back up its threats. “I hope there really is something there because, what I’m concerned about is North Korea will test that, if they aren’t convinced that there is any action behind those words, they will continue to push the boundaries to see what really is there,” she said.
Ms. Hooker is presently a senior vice president at American Global Strategies, a consultancy founded last year by former Trump administration National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. The Washington Brief’s regular panel includes former CIA official and longtime U.S. diplomatic adviser Joseph DeTrani and Alexandre Mansourov, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.
Mr. Mansourov criticized the Biden administration’s handling of North Korea policy. “What’s happening today reminds me of the benign neglect approach — if you wish, the ‘Strategic Patience’ approach — which the Obama administration displayed towards North Korea,” he said. “We know what happened during the first incarnation of [the] benign neglect policy: North Korea stepped up its bad behavior at that time. I’m talking about 2015 [and] 2016, which means that they engaged in tactical military provocations just like we’re seeing today.”
Ms. Hooker cautioned that U.S. officials should be wary of pursuing any strategy that relies on China — North Korea’s primary ally and economic backer — as a reliable partner in containing the Kim regime’s provocations.
“I think there are ways to motivate China to move to get North Korea to knock it off,” she said. “But I don’t think that we should go and ask for the Chinese to help. I think that would be counterproductive.”
She added that “looking for ways to peel the North off of China … should be in our thoughts and in our goals from a foreign policy perspective.”
Mr. DeTrani, meanwhile, emphasized the urgency to deal with Pyongyang since the breakdown of Trump-era denuclearization talks with the Kim regime.
“In 2022, over 40 ballistic missile launches by North Korea — 40,” he said. “Think about it, an intermediate-range ballistic missile that flew over Japan that could reach and go beyond Guam.”
Ms. Hooker described the pace of the North’s recent missile activity as “mind-blowing,” adding that the “potential for conflict is high.”
“We thought 2017 was a lot,” she said. “But we’re seeing even more than that now, again because I believe Kim sees this as an opportune time to advance forward.”