“Nature abhors a vacuum,” goes the idiom, and so does North Korea. Seeking to escape its hermit-state past and join the modern world’s big leagues, the pint-sized Asian nation is intent on amplifying its nuclear saber rattling. The din is sharpening anxiety among its estranged kin to the south, who are pondering whether to field their own nuclear arsenal. They should not, and President Biden should take pains to reassure both parties that the long-standing U.S. alliance that has safeguarded South Korea and deterred the North remains as reliable as ever.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un opened the new year by pledging “redoubled efforts to overwhelmingly beef up the military muscle to thoroughly guarantee the sovereignty, security and fundamental interests of the Republic in response to the worrying military moves by the U.S. and other hostile forces precisely targeting the DPRK,” or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
After a year in which the regime fired more than 70 ballistic missiles, Mr. Kim’s “redoubled efforts” for 2023 include plans for a groundbreaking military satellite launch as well as the development of an advanced intercontinental missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.
Unsurprisingly, South Koreans have grown increasingly fearful of its unruly neighbor. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, a self-described conservative, is reportedly mulling a South bomb to counter the North’s nukes in the event of a reduction of the U.S. military presence that dates back to the start of the Korean War in 1950. Polls show the proportion of South Koreans favoring nuclear weapons acquisition has surpassed 70%.
It is understandable that the South’s 52 million citizens might question whether the United States remains a trustworthy ally in rebuffing the autocratic Kim dynasty’s multigenerational campaign to absorb its democratic nemesis. After all, high hopes that former President Donald Trump’s tantalizing offers of financial assistance in exchange for denuclearization proved as futile as previous U.S. overtures in past decades. And President Biden’s abrupt 2021 abandonment of Afghanistan to the ruthless Taliban shocked friend and foe alike.
Robust deterrence can take alternative forms, though, including economic ones. Mr. Kim’s regime is underwritten by China’s Xi Jinping, his fellow communist ruler. Were the North to unload on the South or — heaven forfend — on the U.S., the pain befalling Mr. Xi from lost U.S.-China commerce would exceed its tiny sidekick’s annual gross domestic product of $16 billion before the radioactive fallout settled. Blowing up the boss’s business is never a smart move.
Moreover, were the South’s Mr. Yoon to mount his own nuclear threat, not only would he put a twitch in Mr. Kim’s trigger finger, he could also place South Korea in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and possibly trigger crippling economic sanctions.
If the North’s Kim follows through on his pledge to invigorate his desolate nation with new nuclear might, Mr. Biden should remind South Koreans that fashioning their own brand of nukes will not render “the land of the morning calm” more peaceful. By offering reassurances that the South’s security remains an American priority, he can allay its nuclear fears.