Analysis: U.S. and allies turn to deterring war with North Korea as options for preventing nuclear tests dwindle

SEOUL, Oct 31 (Reuters) – The prospect of a new North Korean nuclear test shows the limited options for Washington and its allies, who have accepted Pyongyang’s “deterrence” through major military drills that some current and former officials say could make tension worse.

South Korea said in October that the allies would respond “unlikely” to a new nuclear test – but it is not clear what measures would be taken to avoid revisiting the age.

Years of sanctions, diplomatic pressure, and shows of military force have not prevented North Korea from developing and expanding its arsenal of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles that could reach the United States.

Now that the North’s nuclear weapons are mature and deployed, the United States and its allies are trying to deter the North from military action.

South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup said last week that the focus of efforts to deal with North Korea should be shifted from preventing the development of nuclear weapons to preventing their use.

“We plan to expand the scope of our participation in information sharing, planning, exercises and drills,” he told a panel of lawmakers.

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A ministry official told Reuters that Lee was not throwing his support behind the idea of ​​North Korea recognizing it as a nuclear state, but was stressing the immediate need to prevent North Korea from developing weapons. to use.

“Lee is saying loudly what policymakers in Seoul and Washington are thinking — namely, that while denuclearization is the ultimate goal, deterring North Korea is the priority in the here and now, ” said Daniel Russel, a former senior US diplomat.

FOCUS ON PREVENTION

The United States and South Korea are in “lockstep” in their efforts to seek “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” a spokesman for the US National Security Council said when asked about Lee’s comments.

“We continue to prioritize diplomacy, but at the same time we continue to strengthen deterrence and work to limit the progress of (North Korea’s) illegal weapons programs,” the spokesman said.

Some analysts saw Lee’s comments as the latest sign that Washington and Seoul are facing the reality that North Korea is a nuclear state. But they noted that the focus remains on deterrence rather than risk reduction, such as negotiating to limit the number of North Korean weapons and prevent their proliferation.

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US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel declined to specify what measures Washington would take if North Korea tested a nuclear bomb for the first time since 2017, but cited sanctions and military drills as examples of tools it can use to “Holding North Korea accountable.”

Observers expect China and Russia to condemn a new nuclear test, but are unlikely to support new sanctions, which they say have failed and will only harm ordinary North Koreans.

The recent US Nuclear Posture Review states that Kim Jong Un’s regime would be ended if he ever attacked with nuclear weapons.

‘TURN THE VOLUME DOWN’

In early October, the commander of the US Navy’s 7th fleet said the deployment of an aircraft carrier to South Korea was likely part of a “tantrum” from Kim Jong Un.

Another major drill began on Monday with hundreds of South Korean and US warplanes, including a rare deployment of American F-35B fighters.

North Korea has combined new rounds of missile tests or military exercises at the drills, which are a central part of the allies’ response.

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Patel called suggestions that the drills are making tensions worse “baloney.” Duyeon Kim, with the US-based Center for a New American Security, noted that rising tensions do not always correlate with drills.

“The normalization of joint drills boosts readiness and is intended to be publicized again to deter North Korea and reassure the South Korean people,” Kim said.

A former senior US defense official told Reuters that while the phased drills ensure readiness, the publicity and pressure surrounding them can be counterproductive.

“They’re doing it because they want to send a message to North Korea, hey, we mean business,” he said. “But it’s not helping.”

When political leaders said the drills were postponed in previous years to enable diplomacy, that often meant the exercises were not being publicized, the former official said, adding that the current rhetoric seems to have gone too far. in the opposite direction.

“A way to reduce tension is to reduce the volume a little, and see if that helps.”

Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington. Edited by Gerry Doyle

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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