Special Forum Issue

“South Korea Edging toward Bipolarity, 2020-2022”

South Korea Confronts the New Missile Age: 2020-2022


For South Korean policy toward North Korea, the 2020-2022 period proved to be a watershed. Ever since the Sunshine Policy launched in 1998, leaders in Seoul had envisioned some sort of breakthrough with the leadership in Pyongyang to greatly decrease the threat from the North and to foster better relations with the South. Achieving those goals was perceived as vital to not only safeguarding South Korean security but also to allowing it to exercise greater influence on the world stage. In 2020 these hopes were left on life support following the breakdown in diplomacy between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. In 2022 they were relegated to history by North Korean behavior and the deteriorating global environment, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine and growing US-China tensions, which further split the international community and made it impossible for the great powers to come together to deal with the North.

Even after the collapse of diplomacy and summitry with Kim Jong-un following the failure of the Hanoi summit in 2019, President Moon Jae-in still clung to the hope that he could make an improbable breakthrough with the North in the remaining year and half left of his term. The Moon administration doubled down on diplomatic efforts with the North with a sense of urgency, although its term would come to an end without a happy ending. By the time President Yoon Seok-yeol came into office in May 2022, the North had returned to an unprecedented level of provocations, including sustained and frequent ballistic missile tests. By the end of 2022, the North had launched a record number of missile tests for the year (nearly 100) and declared a new nuclear doctrine threatening a preemptive strike. South Korea was left facing a North Korea with a weapons of mass destruction program that was rapidly morphing and expanding. In the end, Moon’s North Korea policy, while initially credited with facilitating nuclear diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang and easing fears of conflict, had come to be seen as having aided the Kim regime to buy time and advance its nuclear and missile technologies. 2022 ended with inter-Korea relations entering a new and more dangerous phase.

2020: From Diplomacy to Confrontation

As the two-year anniversary of the historic Kim-Trump summit in Singapore approached in June 2020, Kim Jong-un began shifting to a harder line in his public posture, including threats to resume long-range missile and nuclear tests. Kim had greeted the new year, 2020, with a warning to the world that it would soon see the North’s “new strategic weapon” while vowing that the North would implement new “policies” in the coming year to boost its nuclear deterrent.1  At a rare meeting of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, which replaced the typical televised New Year’s address, Kim railed against Washington’s “hostile” policy and “gangster-like acts,” which, he said, left the North no choice but to pursue a “new path.”2 In the preceding months, Kim had given the US until the end of the year to drop its hostile policy while threatening to deliver an unwelcome “Christmas gift.”3 While the end of 2019 came and went without a Christmas gift from the North and without renewed missile tests, when Kim greeted 2020, he signaled that he was about to shift to a more aggressive phase in inter-Korea relations.

Moon Jae-in, on the other hand, continually eager to improve ties with the North, used his New Year’s address to say that “the need to find realistic ways to further advance inter-Korean cooperation has become all the more urgent” and reiterated his proposal for the two Koreas to cooperate in various areas such as jointly bidding to host the 2032 Summer Olympics, beginning sports exchanges, and reconnecting inter-Korean railways and roads.4 Moon also said that he would continue his efforts to resume operation of the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), which the previous Park Geun-hye administration had closed in February 2016 in retaliation against the North’s nuclear and missile provocations. He also expressed a desire to resume South Korean tourism to Mount Kumgang in the North. Moon and Kim Jong-un had agreed during a summit in Pyongyang in September 2018 to reopen the KIC and Mount Kumgang tours as soon as conditions were right.

A few weeks later, in his annual New Year’s press conference, Moon went even further, saying, “If exceptions from U.N. sanctions are necessary for South-North cooperation, I think we can make efforts for that.”5 Talking about sanctions exceptions for the North was clearly a carefully deliberated move by the Moon administration. On the same day, halfway around the world, Moon’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, speaking to reporters in Silicon Valley following meetings with the foreign ministers of Japan and the United States, said it is essential to revive “North Korea’s engagement momentum” through inter-Korean talks in areas which the South and North can handle. She thought there were projects which, if there is a problem of sanctions, can be done through receiving sanctions exemptions.6   

When Kim Jong-un did not respond to these peace gestures, and as the COVID-19 outbreak began, Moon used his annual speech commemorating Korea’s March 1 Independence Movement to say that he was looking forward to cooperating with North Korea on healthcare, so that the two Koreans could battle the virus together. North Korea’s response to these overtures by Moon was to have the most active month of missile testing to date. It conducted nine tests in March 2020, even though Washington and Seoul cancelled joint military exercises. A day after Moon’s March 1 address on possible inter-Korean cooperation on COVID-19, Pyongyang launched two short-range ballistic missiles (KN-25s),7 which were followed by three more KN-25 tests on March 9,8 two KN-24 tests on March 21,9 and then two final KN-25s on March 30.10 This series of short-range missiles in March signaled the North’s intent to follow through with Kim’s promise to possess a “new strategic weapon.”

Shortly after, on the eve of a key state anniversary in the North and parliamentary elections in the South, the North launched cruise missiles—the first such test in nearly three years.11 Even with a barrage of tests by the North, the Moon administration could not be swayed off the path it was on, of trying to find some sort of a breakthrough with the North. When the ruling Democratic Party won a landslide victory in the South’s parliamentary elections in April, gaining 180 out of 200 seats, the Moon administration was more determined than ever to forge ahead with inter-Korean cooperative projects. In a news conference on May 10 marking his third year in office, Moon declared his desire to become a “negotiator” again: “Let’s not just look at the U.S-North Korea dialogue, but now find what can be done between South and North.”12 Then on May 21, Moon’s first chief of staff, Im Jong-seok, gave a revealing interview to a Korean magazine about Moon’s mindset: “President Moon will try to push ahead to get things done, while sufficiently communicating with the U.S., even if there are negative views.”13 Im added that South Korea has to think about what it will do when the dialogue between the United States and North Korea does not work out. Im was a key figure in the Moon government’s inter-Korean relationship and was deeply involved in the three inter-Korean summits between Moon and Kim. Clearly, he was indicating that the Moon administration was willing to be at odds with Washington if it meant making even incremental progress on inter-Korea relations, the Trump administration having maintained that the improvement of inter-Korean relations should take place in tandem with the pace of denuclearization.

Going even further, the Ministry of Unification declared that the May 24 sanctions measures that were enacted in the wake of the North’s attack on the South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, in 2010 would no longer be an obstacle to promoting inter-Korean cooperation. This was the first time in a decade that the South Korean government had officially stated that it could ease the May 24 measures that banned all inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation. To achieve this goal, the Moon administration prepared a draft amendment to the inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act that would simplify the process of contacting Pyongyang, while conducting a survey to register the DMZ, an emblem of inter-Korean conflict, as a UNESCO World Heritage site.14

The North was unmoved by all these gestures. The Kim regime simply underscored that it was not interested in Moon’s attempt to preserve the Korean détente and began to dramatically escalate tensions the next month. It began early in June when Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, threatened to pull out of an inter-Korean military accord, withdraw from the KIC, and abolish the joint liaison office if South Korea failed to stop its citizens and North Korean defectors from sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.15 Calling the North Korean defectors involved in the anti-North leaflet campaign “human scum” and “rubbish-like mongrel dogs,” she demanded that the Moon administration ban civilian leafleting.16

Just hours after Kim Yo-jong’s tirades against the leaflet balloons, the Moon administration obliged the regime by saying it would take immediate action to prohibit the sending of leaflets; a spokesperson of the Ministry of Unification even said implausibly that “most leaflets have been found in our territory, causing environmental pollution and increasing burden on local people to get rid of them.”17

Yet even after the Moon administration responded to Kim Yo-jong’s derisive dressing down by saying Seoul would indeed ban the activist groups from sending leaflets, the North still followed through with its threats on June 8 by cutting off all channels of communication with the South, including the inter-Korean military communication hotline, the inter-Korean general hotline, and the hotline between Moon and Kim.18 Soon after, on June 16, the North made good on Kim Yo-jong’s threat and literally blew up the “useless” inter-Korean liaison office located at Kaesong—a four-story office building that had cost the Moon administration $70 million to build and that served as a de facto embassy and communications channel for the two Koreas.19  A statement released by North Korea described the move as “the latest punishment measure conducted in the wake of cutting off all communication lines between the North and the South.”20 Simultaneously, the North declared the South to be an “enemy” and threatened to move troops into the demilitarized zone, refused to participate in future inter-Korean talks, and vowed to develop its nuclear weapons.21 With this dramatic ramping up of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the cooperative spirit of the 2018 summits became a dead letter by the end of June.

The destruction of a rare symbol of cross-border cooperation marked a sharp escalation from Pyongyang and a setback for Moon, who had made efforts to coax the Kim regime to give up nuclear weapons the hallmarks of his presidency. As Lim Jae-cheon said at the time, “Moon’s peace and reconciliation policy appears to have failed,” and it appeared “Moon probably will have great difficulty in reviving relations for the rest of his term.”22 Most Korea watchers in the US and South Korea concluded at the time that the demolition of the liaison office was simply the most explosive moment of an escalating pressure campaign by the North intended to push Moon to split from Washington and ease sanctions against the Kim regime.23

Yet the Moon administration still could not be discouraged from its pursuit of diplomacy. Even North Korea’s brutal killing of a South Korean Ministry of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs official, Lee Dae-joon, on September 21 would not affect the Moon administration’s desire to make progress with Pyongyang. Trying to make the North look better, the Moon administration asserted that Lee was on sea duty near Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea and claimed that he tried to defect when he was killed by North Korea soldiers and his body was burnt at sea.  (The Yoon administration’s Board of Audit and Inspection would find in October 2022 that there was insufficient evidence to claim that Lee was a would-be defector.)24

A few weeks later, on October 10, the North held a long-awaited military parade to mark the 75th founding anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, where it revealed more North Korean military technology—both conventional and WMD—than ever before, including new anti-tank guided missiles, a new air defense radar system, a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, the Pukguksong-4, and scores of short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles. The centerpiece was its new “strategic weapon,” dubbed by experts a “monster” weapon, the Hwasong-15, the largest liquid-propellent, road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile in the world.

Clearly the message that the North was sending with such a display was that it was in a position of strength, that it was making incredible progress on its nuclear and missile program and their delivery systems, and that time was on its side despite the raging pandemic, its strict border closure with China, typhoons, and other challenges. In fact, in a speech, Kim emphasized that “time is by our side.”25

By the end of 2020, the South Korean National Assembly, dominated by Moon’s party, adopted legislation criminalizing the sending of anti-North leaflets, USB sticks, Bible verses, and even US dollars into North Korea via balloons.26 The new South Korean law imposed stiff fines (up to almost $30,000) and even jail terms (up to three years), despite fierce criticism by conservatives and human rights activists abroad that South Korea was sacrificing civil liberties and freedom of expression. This was perceived as a highly partisan, divisive decision in South Korea. Ruling party lawmakers said the legislation was simply intended to avoid unnecessarily provoking the North and to ensure the safety of people who live near the border. The opposition lawmakers, meanwhile, saw this as evidence that Moon was appeasing Pyongyang. Opposition National Assembly members protested and refused to participate in the vote. The ruling party was nevertheless able to use its three-fifths parliamentary supermajority to bring the issue to a final vote.

2021: Seoul’s Last-Ditch Efforts for a Breakthrough

Moon faced an unenviable environment heading into the final year-plus of his presidency. North Korea remained utterly impassive in the face of his outreach, and he was running out of time, but he remained undeterred in his desire to achieve a breakthrough with the North. He carved out a significant chunk of his 2021 New Year’s speech to promoting “principles of mutual security guarantees, common prosperity and zero tolerance for war,” and assuring Kim Jong-un that he was determined to meet with Kim “at any time and any place.”27

The North’s response was to make it clear to the Moon administration that it was still unhappy with Seoul even after the adoption of the “gag” law in December. At the rare Workers’ Party Congress (the first since 2016), Kim criticized Moon for making “nonessential” offers to cooperate on the pandemic, humanitarian issues, and joint tours. Kim Yo-jong continued to ridicule Moon, describing him as “clueless” and an “idiot” and calling the Moon administration a “truly weird group.”28  

The Party Congress report also contained a laundry list of the North’s newest armaments: a nuclear-powered submarine, intercontinental ballistic missiles, reconnaissance satellites, “multi-warhead,” “hypersonic gliding-fight missiles,” and “ultramodern tactical nuclear weapons.” At the same time, the Party Congress also passed a resolution to “further strengthen our nuclear deterrence.”29 The Kim regime then greeted the incoming Biden administration by launching two cruise missiles and two short-range ballistic missiles in March 2021, the first since it tested a barrage of short-range missiles a year prior.30 Nevertheless, a month later, Moon, in an interview with The New York Times, urged the new Biden administration to not “kill the 2018 Singapore agreement.”31  

Following a months-long policy review, the Biden administration finally announced on April 30 that it would take a “calibrated, practical approach” towards North Korea with a goal of denuclearization.17 It said it will pursue “diplomacy, as well as stern deterrence,” and said it had at the same time reached out to the North, saying that it is open to talks without preconditions. The Biden administration emphasized that it still supports inter-Korean engagement and said that it was exploring diplomatic options for North Korea with South Korea and Japan.18 The Biden administration said it was also open to using humanitarian aid to incentivize North Korea’s return to talks.19 

The Biden administration, however, did not make the bigger concessions that North Korea has demanded—such as sanctions relief—or take greater political and diplomatic risks to jump-start a diplomatic process. It also remained unclear what the Biden administration meant exactly when it said it was exploring “something in the middle” between the Trump administration’s “all or nothing” policy and the Obama administration’s “strategic patience policy.”32

On May 10, in a speech to mark four years in office, Moon again indicated his willingness to breathe new life into the Korean peace process. On May 21, Moon had his first in-person summit with newly elected Biden in Washington. As the U.S.-ROK Leaders’ Joint Statement was announced, the public and media attention largely shifted from a “vaccine swap” arrangement, which was said to be the major achievement of the summit, to a reaffirmation of the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement.33

There finally appeared to be some sort of brief breakthrough with the North when, at the end of July 2021, the Moon administration declared that the two Koreas were restoring four communication lines that Pyongyang had cut off a year ago when the North severed all inter-Korean governmental communication.34  Soon after, however, the North stopped answering routine South Korean calls in apparent protest of the joint US-South Korea military exercises scheduled for August. Still, the initial resumption of inter-Korean calls marked a slight improvement in inter-Korea relations since a sharp deterioration in mid-2020. 2 At the time, various Korea watchers speculated that the Kim regime was again using rapprochement to extract economic concessions and aid from Seoul as it was facing significant domestic challenges brought on by natural disasters and halting of trade with China, which reportedly had dropped by more than 80 percent due to North Korea closing its borders as a COVID-19 prevention measure.35 In fact, perhaps the most significant developments in 2021 was that the North’s self-imposed COVID quarantine reduced external trade more than international sanctions ever could. 

The North for the remainder of the year remained non-responsive to all overtures from the South—as well as to US overtures. By September, the North returned to testing, including a new type of long-range cruise missile, short-range missiles, and, on September 28, a new “hypersonic” missile called Hwasong-8, followed two days later by a new type of anti-aircraft missile.36 In October 2021, North Korea fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile but then began answering military and liaison office communication lines again.37 

2022: The Year of Testing

2022 began with the North firing off a barrage of missiles—hypersonic missiles (some launched from train cars), short-range ballistic and cruise missiles, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRMB) in January—as the North was getting ready to celebrate important triple anniversaries: Kim Jong-il’s 80th birthday in February, Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday, and the 10th anniversary of Kim Jong-un’s reign in April (Kim becoming first secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea). After the IRBM launch on January 30, the North renewed testing again, testing a Hwasong-17, the latest generation ICBM on February 27.38 For the Moon administration, which allocated the bulk of its political capital to achieving a breakthrough with the North, these missiles in close succession ahead of the presidential election in March dashed any remaining hope of returning to dialogue with Pyongyang and leaving a positive legacy for its North Korea policy.

With the election of Yoon Suk-yeol, the candidate of the opposition conservative People Power Party, in South Korea’s presidential election on March 9, South Korea’s policy toward North Korea was now poised to significantly shift away from Moon’s policies of the past five years. Moon approached North Korea issues as a peacemaker pursuing dialogue above all else; Yoon signaled, even before he was elected, that he would prioritize strengthening the military alliance with the US, build up South Korean’s own advanced missile programs, and enhance extended deterrence of North Korea’s nuclear program.

Specifically, Yoon pledged during his campaign that his administration would strengthen the US-ROK military alliance by invigorating joint military drills and deploying additional THAAD anti-missile launchers. During his New Year’s press conference on January 11, hours after the North conducted its second missile test of the new year, Yoon even said that he backed achieving “preemptive strike capabilities” in the event of a conflict with the North.39 Yoon was referring to reviving the so-called “three Ks,” the three-axis system of the South Korean military response system designed to defend its territory by: first, developing a “kill chain” that preemptively strikes North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles; second, intercepting incoming missile strikes using the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system; and third, employing a “mass retaliation” campaign to eliminate the North’s command-and-control centers. The three-axis system was announced in 2013, shortly before North Korea’s third nuclear test, but the Moon administration replaced this term with a “system for responding to nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction” in 2019, which Moon hoped would sound less offensive to the North Koreans.40

At the same time, Yoon also vowed to build up surveillance and reconnaissance capacities to monitor all North Korean territory and promised to equip the South Korean military with “ultra-precision and hypersonic missiles.”41 The North’s response was to keep the missiles coming. A few days before the presidential election, it tested its reconnaissance satellite systems, then a projectile following the election on March 16, and multiple rocket launchers and an intercontinental ballistic missile on March 24.42 In April, the North fired two short-range ballistic missiles; it later indicated that the “new type tactical guided weapon” was developed as a means of delivering “tactical nukes.”43 A month later, after launching a submarine-launched ballistic missile on May 7, the North launched three more ballistic missiles on May 25 while Biden was flying back to Washington, D.C. after a visit to Japan and Korea. The launches continued throughout the summer. Notably, in June, the North fired eight short-range ballistic missiles from different locations in North Korea.44

Once Yoon was in office, while he made clear that South Korea’s role going forward would not be that of a mediator between Washington and Pyongyang, his approach towards the North was not all hardline all the time. Yoon did try to continue some aspects of Moon’s North Korea policy, including his desire to interact economically with the North as a means of incentivizing denuclearization. Yoon announced his initiative to install a trilateral South Korea-US-North Korea liaison office in the Panmunjom area and pledged to provide humanitarian support to North Koreans. In his first Liberation Day Speech as president on August 15, Yoon presented his vision of an “audacious initiative” that will improve North Korea’s economy and North Koreans’ livelihoods if Pyongyang ceases “the development of its nuclear program and embarks on a genuine and substantive process for denuclearization.”45 If this occurs, Yoon pledged that South Korea would implement a large-scale food program, aid with power generation, carry out projects to modernize ports and airports for international trade, enhance North Korea’s agricultural productivity, and offer assistance to modernize hospitals and medical infrastructure, while also implementing international investment and financial support initiatives.46

Predictably, the North ridiculed these proposals, and Yoon’s “bold plan” went nowhere. Two days after Yoon made his “audacious” proposal, North Korea called him “simple” and “childish,” and fired two cruise missiles off its west coast.47 Then in August and September 2022, South Korea and the United States held their largest joint military drills amid escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the Ulchi Freedom Shield (UFS), along with a joint maritime counter-special operations exercise, which had been on hiatus since 2018. Yoon said that “only exercises that mimic real life can firmly protect South Korea’s national security and the people’s lives.”48 The UFS, held from August 22 to September 1, unveiled some significant changes, including the integration of the government’s civil defense drills (Ulchi), and the resumption of field training. The US-South Korea-Japan joint trilateral maritime exercise involving the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was subsequently held in the waters off the eastern coast of the Korean Peninsula from September 26 to 29, demonstrating America’s “clear commitment to the alliance.”49

Although the alliance highlighted these joint military drills as “defensive” in nature, the North predictably denounced them as “practice to invade North Korea.”50 The North’s state news agency, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), threatened a military escalation and said: “the United States and South Korea seem to be hoping that Pyongyang will conduct a nuclear test as soon as possible.”51 Tensions surrounding the Korean Peninsula rose further as North Korea launched another barrage of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) toward the East Sea on September 25, a day before the ROK-US-Japan combined maritime exercise. The missiles were believed to be KN-23’s, similar to the Russian Iskander.52

Even more concerning than the record number of missile tests was the North’s announcement on September 8 of legislation at the Supreme People’s Assembly that effectively threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes. Stressing the importance of the new law, Kim Jong-un expressed his determination not to give up nuclear weapons and accused the United States of aiming to topple the regime.53  The Nuclear Forces Policy Act states five conditions for preemptive use of nuclear weapons. The conditions include when nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction attack have been carried out or are imminent; when a nuclear or non-nuclear attack by hostile forces against the leadership or the national nuclear force command body has been carried out or is imminent; when a military attack has been carried out or is imminent on the country’s critical strategic targets; when there is an unavoidable necessity to prevent the expansion and prolongation of war and seize the initiative in war; and when a catastrophic crisis occurs that threatens the existence of the country and the safety of the people, leaving no choice but to respond with nuclear weapons.54

The Yoon administration and South Korean media outlets understandably expressed concern over the new doctrine. In the face of the North’s “outright and offensive nuclear threat,” a call for bipartisan efforts to respond decisively to the unstable security environment increased.55 The government stressed the importance of prioritizing military readiness and strengthening America’s extended deterrence.56 

On October 4, North Korea test-fired an intermediate-range missile that overflew Japan for the first time in five years, possibly to showcase its military accomplishments ahead of the 77th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea. The missile flew around 4,500 kilometers to a maximum altitude of around 970 kilometers, the longest range yet by a North Korean missile that can potentially target the US forces in Japan and Guam. This was just one of seven rounds of ballistic missile launches, from September 25 to October 9. Kim Jong-un guided these on-the-spot military drills of his tactical nuclear weapon units, simulating strikes on South Korean airports, ports, and military command facilities with ballistic missiles using various platforms including an underwater silo.57

The North Korean media stated that the seven rounds of military drills demonstrated the North’s ability “to hit and wipe out the set objects at the intended places in the set time.” Regarding dialogue and negotiations, the state media quoted Kim as saying that “we do not have anything to talk about nor do we feel the need to do so.”58 These seven rounds of ballistic missile launches made clear North Korea’s intention to coerce South Korea and the United States. On October 12, the North followed with testing of “long-range strategic cruise missiles” that it said were deployed at units operating “tactical nukes.”59

North Korea marked November with the most blasts ever, with at least 46 ballistic and other missiles launched, half of them on November 2 alone.60 On November 18, the North fired off the Hwasong-17, the newest, the most powerful, and largest road-mobile ICBM in the world.  A month later, on December 16, the North successfully tested a powerful, “the first of its kind” solid-fuel rocket engine.61 This is an important capability for the North as it allows the North a much shorter window for the US and South Korea to potentially preempt a missile launch. Liquid fuel missiles are more vulnerable to monitoring and even preemptive strike because they take longer to launch. Kim Jong-un guided the test personally. In its five-year plan set forth by the 8th Party Congress in January 2021, the North announced that developing a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can be launched from both land and sea was one of its five priority tasks. It now seems to be on its way to achieving that capability.62 Two days later, the North launched two medium-range ballistic missiles from the same site where the new rocket engine was tested.

In response to North Korea’s unprecedented year-long bluster and missile barrage, the Yoon administration began raising the possibility of redeploying US tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea and of abolishing the confidence-building measure and denuclearization agreements with North Korea. In response to a press question on October 12 about the possibility of redeploying US tactical nuclear weapons, Yoon said that his government was “listening diligently” to ideas from academia and the government in South Korea and the US and looking carefully at various possibilities.63

On the same day, Chung Jin-suk, a head of the ruling People Power Party’s emergency standing committee, argued in a Facebook post that South Korea should abolish the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the 2018 military agreement with North Korea if the North conducts a seventh nuclear test, while Kim Ki Hyun, a representative from Yoon’s conservative party eyeing selection as the next party leader, argued on October 19 during a radio interview that South Korea should look into all measures including redeploying U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, nuclear-sharing, or developing an independent nuclear force.64

Washington’s reaction to South Korea’s growing calls to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons was muted. US Ambassador to South Korea Philip Goldberg said during a public forum held in Seoul that “all this talk about tactical nuclear weapons, whether it comes from Putin or Kim Jong-un is irresponsible and dangerous,” while National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, during a press briefing, declined to comment on whether the US would consider redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to South Korean soil. Meanwhile, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said only that Biden “affirmed the US extended deterrence commitment to the ROK… including nuclear, conventional and missile defense capabilities.”65

In late December, South Korea’s National Assembly approved a 4.4 percent hike in defense spending for 2023, bringing Seoul’s total defense budget next year to about $45 billion. The increase includes funding for new preemptive strike capabilities. Meanwhile, Japan made even more dramatic changes in its own national security strategy in response to the increased threats from both North Korea and China. Under the plan unveiled by Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio in mid-December 2022, Japan will increase its defense spending by more than 50 percent over the next five years, shattering its decades-old doctrine of limiting defense spending to one percent of GDP. Japan also plans to acquire long-range counterstrike capabilities it has long shunned, including several hundred US-made Tomahawk cruise missiles that could reach targets in both China and North Korea.

2022 wrapped up with more North Korean missile tests, including two more short-range ballistic missiles on December 23, and three more short-range missiles on December 31, bringing to nearly 100 the number of missiles tested that year—a record breaking number. On December 26, the North also violated South Korean airspace by flying surveillance drones across the border for the first time in five years. Some of the drones entered the northern end of the 2.3-mile no-fly zone surrounding the presidential office in Seoul. That incursion prompted the South to scramble jets, fire warning shots, and fly its own drones into North Korean airspace. As 2023 began, there were indications that South Korea was preparing for a nuclear test.66 Clearly, Moon’s policies had failed. Could Yoon do any better?


The years 2020-2022 were a period when the North Korean nuclear and missile threat grew at an unprecedented rate while the United States and South Korea struggled to find an effective response. While Trump largely abandoned attempts at a diplomatic breakthrough after the failure of the 2019 Hanoi summit and the onset of the covid pandemic, Moon held on until the very end of his tenure the illusion of denuclearization and genuine peace on the Korean Peninsula. His hopes were dashed, and indeed his eagerness for outreach may have encouraged Kim to think that he could expand his WMD arsenal and carry out provocations without repercussions.

The international environment became even more favorable for North Korea, and China and Russia became less likely than ever to cooperate with the United States and its allies in strengthening sanctions on North Korea, in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Previously, Beijing and Moscow were at least at times willing to join forces with the United States to penalize North Korea following provocations (for example, in the fall of 2017), even as they helped North Korea evade sanctions. Since the start of the Ukraine war, however, both Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin refused to not only enforce existing sanctions but also vetoed any further action against North Korea at the UN Security Council. Even additional nuclear tests or nuclear and missile developments by North Korea would be unlikely to prompt a serious reaction from China and Russia. This represented a critical juncture in regional dynamics—with Beijing and Moscow now viewing Pyongyang’s provocations more as a means to gain advantages over Washington than as a concerning threat to regional stability.

Meanwhile, the Ukraine war raised the specter of North Korean aggression to a new level; it may have prompted the Kim regime to consider a new “first-use” nuclear doctrine, in addition to the development and operational deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, by taking a page straight out of Vladmir Putin’s playbook. Kim likely took note of Putin’s nuclear saber rattling to deter NATO and the United States from direct involvement in the war and imagined that the United States could be forced to back off with nuclear threats.

Yoon, upon taking office, took a tougher stance, but it did not pay dividends, either. Biden, for his part, was preoccupied with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s growing intransigence and aware that it was nearly impossible to make any progress on North Korea. So his administration failed to come up with an effective North Korea policy. That left Biden and Yoon discussing, with Kishida, how to bolster “extended deterrence” of North Korea to prevent Kim from using his expanding WMD arsenal. But while important, such moves could not stop Kim from continuing to expand his nuclear and missile stockpiles at an alarming rate.

By the end of 2022, North Korea had become one of only three countries—along with China and Russia—capable of hitting the US mainland with nuclear tipped ICBMs. It was also rapidly working to develop the ability to launch multiple reentry vehicles (MIRV) that could frustrate US missile defenses. The Hwasong-17 is designed to carry multiple warheads and could thus theoretically strike Manhattan and Washington at the same time. The risk that a miscalculation by Pyongyang could lead to a conflict was growing, particularly given its lack of communication with Washington and Seoul.

1. “Report on 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th C.C., Workers Party of Korea,” KCNA, January 1, 2020, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1577829999-473709661/report-on-5th-plenary-meeting-of-7th-c-c-wpk/.

2. Simon Denyer, “Two years after Trump summit, Kim vows to boost North Korea’s nuclear deterrent,” The Washington Post, May 24, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/two-years-after-singapore-kim-vows-to-boost-north-koreas-nuclear-deterrent/2020/05/24/729778fc-9da1-11ea-be06-af5514ee0385_story.html.

3. Simon Denyer, “North Korean warns United States of an unwelcome ‘Christmas gift,’” The Washington Post, December 3, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/north-korea-warns-united-states-of-an-unwelcome-christmas-gift/2019/12/03/ad406634-1599-11ea-80d6-d0ca7007273f_story.html.

4. 2020 New Year’s Address by President Moon Jae-in, January 7, 2020, https://overseas.mofa.go.kr/hk-en/brd/m_1494/view.do?seq=756682&srchFr=&srchTo=&srchWord=&srchTp=&multi_itm_seq=0&itm_seq_1=0&itm_seq_2=0&company_cd=&company_nm=.

5. Hyung-jin Kim, “SKorea’s Moon could seek exemption of UN sanctions on NKorea,” Associated Press, January 14, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/asia-pacific-united-nations-north-korea-international-news-moon-jae-in-a38da362d176402226844fec7c13d5cb.

6. Sang-mi Cha, “South Korea says pushing ahead with North Korea engagement despite stalled talks,” Reuters, January 15, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-usa-southkorea-idUSKBN1ZE0QF. Also see “Kang Kyung-wha stresses need to restore inter-Korean dialogue,” Hankyoreh, January 16, 2020, https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_northkorea/924728.html.

7. Michael Elleman, “North Korea’s Recent KN-25 Launches,” 38 North, March 6, 2020, https://www.38north.org/2020/03/melleman030620/.

8. Joseph Dempsey, “Assessment of the March 9 KN-25 Test Launch,” 38 North, March 20, 2020, https://www.38north.org/2020/03/jdempsey031020/.

9. Ankit Panda, “The return of the KN-24: unpacking North Korea’s March 21 missile test,” NK Pro, March 22, 2020, https://www.nknews.org/pro/the-return-of-the-kn-24-unpacking-north-koreas-march-21-missile-test/.

10. Ankit Panda, “North Korea Conducts 4th Missile Test in March 2020,” The Diplomat, March 30, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/north-korea-conducts-4th-missile-test-in-march-2020/.

11. Hyung-Jin Kim, “North Korea fires barrage of missiles in weapons test,” The Associated Press, April 14, 2020, https://www.defensenews.com/global/asia-pacific/2020/04/14/north-korea-fires-barrage-of-missiles-in-weapons-test/.

12. Cited in Sean Lee, “Moon Jae-in Holds on to His Dream of North Korea Diplomacy: South Korea’s president is poised for one more push to improve inter-Korean relations,” The Diplomat, June 2, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/06/moon-jae-in-holds-on-to-his-dream-of-north-korea-diplomacy/.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Timothy W. Martin, “Kim Jong Un’s sister threatens South Korea over leaflets,” The Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/kim-jong-uns-sister-threatens-south-korea-over-leaflets-11591267505.

16. “Kim Yo Jong Rebukes South Korean Authorities for Conniving at Anti-DPRK Hostile Act of ‘Defectors from North,” Rodong Sinmun, April 6, 2020, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1591257669-272137200/kim-yo-jong-rebukes-s-korean-authorities-for-conniving-at-anti-dprk-hostile-act-of-defectors-from-north/.

17. “South Korean balloons: Plans to stop people sending cross-border messages,” BBC News, June 4, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-52917029.

18. “KCNA Reports on Cutting off All North-South Communication Lines,” KCNA, June 8, 2020, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1591650988-850028113/kcna-report-on-cutting-off-all-north-south-communication-lines/.

19. “N. Korea blows up joint liaison office in Kaesong,” Yonhap News Agency, June 16, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20200616008253325?section=nk/nk.

20. “Ominous Prelude to Total Catastrophe of North-South Relations,” KCNA, June 17, 2020, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1592344056-859499527/ominous-prelude-to-total-catastrophe-of-north-south-relations/.

21. “Our Army Will Provide Sure Military Guarantee for All External and Internal Measures of Party and Government: Spokesman for KPA General Staff,” KCNA, June 17, 2020, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1592344056-981767238/our-army-will-provide-sure-military-guarantee-for-all-external-and-internal-measures-of-party-and-government-spokesman-for-kpa-general-staff/. Also see Minjoo Kim, “North Korea blows up joint liaison office, dramatically raising tensions with the South,” The Washington Post, June 16, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/north-korea-liaison-office-kaesong-explosion-demolish-dmz/2020/06/16/7c7a2dc0-af9d-11ea-98b5-279a6479a1e4_story.html.

22. John Power, “Moon Jae-in’s vision of peace with North Korea goes up in smoke,” South China Morning Post, June 20, 2020, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3089859/moon-jae-ins-vision-peace-north-korea-goes-smoke?module=perpetual_scroll_0&pgtype=article&campaign=3089859.

23. Hyonhee Shin, Josh Smith, “North Korea destroys inter-Korean liaison office in ‘terrific explosion,’” Reuters, June 16, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/northkorea-southkorea-idINKBN23N0EL.

24. Seo Ji-eun, “Koreas State Audit Agency Requests Investigation of 20 Officials in Fisheries Official Case,” JoongAng Daily, October 16, 2022, https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2022/10/16/national/politics/Korea-fisheries-murder/20221016185742341.html.

25. “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Delivers Speech at Military Parade,” KCNA, October 10, 2020, https://kcnawatch.app/newstream/1602334499-856510497/supreme-leader-kim-jong-un-delivers-speech-at-military-parade/.

26. “South Korea Bans Flying of Leaflets Toward N. Korea by Balloon,” Courthouse News Service, Associated Press, December 14, 2020.

27. 2021 New Year’s Address by President Moon Jae-in, January 13, 2021, https://usa.mofa.go.kr/us-en/brd/m_4497/view.do?seq=761783.

28. Kelly Katsulis, “Party Congress over: Kim Yo Jong insults Seoul and talks military parade rumors,” NK News, January 12, 2021, https://www.nknews.org/2021/01/party-congress-over-kim-yo-jong-insults-seoul-and-talks-military-parade-rumors/?t=1610501004490. Also see Jeong-ho Lee, “Kim Jong Un Sister Slams ‘Weird Group’ in South Korea for Spying,” Bloomberg, January 13, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-12/kim-jong-un-s-sister-slams-south-korea-for-spying-on-pyongyang#xj4y7vzkg.

29. Choe Sang-hun, “Kim Jong-un Uses Party Congress to Double Down on Nuclear Program,” The New York Times, January 13, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/13/world/asia/north-korea-kim-jong-un-nuclear.html.

30. “N. Korea fires 2 short-range ballistic missiles into East Sea: JCS,” Yonhap News Agency, March 25, 2021, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20210325000656325?section=nk/nk.

31. “After Trump ‘Failed,’ South Korean Leader Hopes Biden Can Salvage Nuclear Deal,” The New York Times, April 21, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/21/world/asia/biden-north-korea-nuclear-deal-president-moon.html.

32. “Biden dismisses Trump, Obama approaches in charting new North Korea policy,” ABC News, April 30, 2021, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/biden-dismisses-trump-obama-approaches-charting-north-korea/story?id=77425459.

33. “U.S.-ROK Leaders’ Joint Statement,” The White House, May 21, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/05/21/u-s-rok-leaders-joint-statement/.

34. Timothy W. Martin and Dasl Yoon, “North Korea Reopens Communications Hotline with South Korea, Breaking a Year of Silence,” The Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/north-korea-reopens-communications-hotline-with-south-korea-breaking-a-year-of-silence-116273596101.

35. “Kim Jong-un says North Korea’s economic plan failed,” BBC, January 6, 2021, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-55563598.

36. “N. Korea’s ‘hypersonic missile’ appears to be at early stage of development: JCS,” Yonhap News Agency, September 29, 2021, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20210929005552325?section=nk/nk. Also see “N. Korea test-fires new anti-aircraft missile: state media,” Yonhap News Agency, October 1, 2021, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20211001000553325?section=nk/nk.

37. “Kim Jong-un says North Korea’s economic plan failed,” BBC, January 6, 2021, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-55563598.

38. Choe Sang-Hun, “Tracking North Korea’s Missile Launches,” The New York Times, January 2, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/article/north-korea-missile-launches.html

39. “Yoon says preemptive strike is only answer to N. Korea’s hypersonic missiles,” Hankyoreh, January 12, 2022, https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/1027059.html.

40. “Defense Ministry changes terminology for “three-axis system” of military response,” Hankkyoreh, January 13, 2019, https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/878208.html.

41. Yoon Suk-yeol, Facebook post, January 16, 2022, https://www.facebook.com/sukyeol.yoon/posts/223370563330218.

42. Choe Sang-Hun, “With U.S. Focus on Ukraine, North Korea Launches a Powerful New ICBM,” The New York Times, March 24, 2022,  https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/24/world/asia/north-korea-missile-icbm.html.

43. Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Launches 2 Short Range Missiles,” The New York Times, April 16, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/16/world/asia/north-korea-missile-launch.html.

44. Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Launches a Volley of Short-Range Missiles,” The New York Times, June 5, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/05/world/asia/north-korea-missile.html.

45. Yoon Suk-Yeol, “Address by President Yoon Suk Yeol on Korea’s 77th Liberation Day,” Speeches, Office of the President, Republic of Korea, August 15, 2022, https://eng.president.go.kr/speeches/k4bSEz3J

46. Ibid.

47. Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Launches Two Missiles in First Test Since June,” The New York Times, August 17, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/17/world/asia/north-korea-missile-launch.html.

48. US, ROK begin largest joint drills in years after North Korea brandishes nukes, NK News, Aug. 22, 2022. (https://www.nknews.org/2022/08/us-rok-begin-largest-joint-drills-in-years-after-north-korea-brandishes-nukes/?t=1672104646414)

49. USS Ronald Reagan in S. Korea for joint drills against N. Korean threats,” Yonhap News Agency, September 23, 2022, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20220923000453325.

50. 한미연합연습 ‘을지자유의 방패’ 1일 마무리,” Hankyoreh, September 1, 2022, https://www.hani.co.kr/arti/politics/defense/1057092.html.  

51. “‘반격’ 한·미 군사훈련 2부 시작에···북 선전·공식매체 ‘방어 아닌 침략’ 맹비난,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, August 29, 2022, https://www.khan.co.kr/politics/north-korea/article/202208291453001.  

52. “北, 美항모 반발 이스칸데르 미사일 쏴…내일부터 연합훈련,” Yonhap News Agency, September 25, 2022, https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20220925015551504.  

53.    “김정은 ‘미국이 노리는 건 정권 붕괴…절대 핵 포기 못해,’” 
Yonhap News Agency, September 9, 2022, https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20220909015452504.

54. “김정은이 법으로 밝힌 ‘핵 사용 5대 조건’은,” Hankyoreh, September 9, 2022, https://www.hani.co.kr/arti/politics/defense/1058180.html.

55. “‘선제적 핵공격’ 법에 못박은 북한의 위험한 도박,” Joongang Ilbo, September 13, 2022, https://www.joongang.co.kr/article/25101137#home.

56.   “北 핵무력 법제화, 국제사회 고립만 심화시킬 것,” Segye Ilbo, September 12, 2022, https://www.segye.com/newsView/20220912517615.

57. Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Says It is Building Underwater Nuclear Weapons Silos,” The New York Times, October 10, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/10/world/asia/north-korea-underwater-nuclear-missiles.html.

58. “KCNA – Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Guides Military Drills of KPA Units for Operation of Tactical Nukes,” NK News KCNA Watch, October 10, 2022, https://kcnawatch.app/newstream/1665358635-402491168/respected-comrade-kim-jong-un-guides-military-drills-of-kpa-units-for-operation-of-tactical-nukes/.

59. Choe Sang-Hun, “Tracking North Korea’s Missile Launches,” The New York Times, January 2, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/article/north-korea-missile-launches.html.

60. Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Launches 23 Missiles, Triggering Air-Raid Alarm in South,” The New York Times, November 1, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/01/world/asia/north-korea-missile-launch.html.

61. “경애하는 김정은 동지의 지도밑에 국방과학원 전략적의의를 가지는 중대시험 진행,” Rodong Sinmun, December 16, 2022, https://kcnawatch.app/newstream/1671141020-238965489/%EA%B2%BD%EC%95%A0%ED%95%98%EB%8A%94-%EA%B9%80%EC%A0%95%EC%9D%80-%EB%8F%99%EC%A7%80%EC%9D%98-%EC%A7%80%EB%8F%84%EB%B0%91%EC%97%90-%EA%B5%AD%EB%B0%A9%EA%B3%BC%ED%95%99%EC%9B%90-%EC%A0%84%EB%9E%B5/.

62. Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Party Congress Opens With Kim Jong-un Admitting Failures, The New York Times, January 5, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/05/world/asia/north-korea-kim-jong-un-party-congress.html?searchResultPosition=4.

63. Yoon Suk-yeol admits to looking at new deterrence options,” Korea Joongang Daily, October 13, 2022, https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2022/10/13/national/politics/Korea-tactical-nuclear-weapons-extended-deterrence/20221013181545418.html.

64. “김기현 ‘국회의원도 전쟁터 나가야…육십 넘었지만 총 들고 나올 것,’” KBS News, October 19, 2022, https://news.kbs.co.kr/news/view.do?ncd=5581824.  

65. Talk of tactical nuke redeployment ‘irresponsible’: US ambassador,” Korea Herald, October 18, 2022, https://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20221018000650; “(LEAD) U.S. remains open to dialogue with N. Korea despite Kim remarks: NSC spokesperson” Yonhap News Agency, October 12, 2022, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20221012000251325.  

66. Sue Mi Terry, “The New North Korean Threat,” Foreign Affairs, January 13, 2023. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/north-korea/new-north-korean-threat.

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