But North Korea appears to be again ready for some form of engagement. The decision to restore communication was made by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un following the exchange of multiple letters since April.
Moon’s office said that he and Kim had decided to “restore mutual confidence and develop their relationships again as soon as possible.” North Korean state media said the two leaders had agreed to “make a big stride in recovering the mutual trust and promoting reconciliation,” the AP reported.
A military line, as well as cross-border phone lines in the border truce village of Panmunjom, were restored Tuesday, Reuters reported.
After the phone lines were reopened, there was a three-minute exchange in which the South Korean side opened with the friendly greeting: “We are happy to connect after more than a year,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
The restoration of the communication lines between the two Koreas comes on the 68th anniversary of the signing of the armistice agreement that brought an end to Korean War hostilities, though not the war itself.
The big question in this development is why North Korea, which has repeatedly rebuffed South Korean attempts to engage it, is now open to some degree of communication.
The exact impact of the coronavirus pandemic on North Korea is unclear, but there is evidence that the country’s economy has taken a hit. There are also reports of food shortages. In recent speeches, Kim has made references to an unspecified great crisis linked to the pandemic. It is unclear if these are motivations for efforts toward engagement.
In their discussions, Moon and Kim have reportedly talked about working together to combat the negative effects of the current global health situation.
Reopening the communication lines is a step toward peaceful engagement between the two Koreas, but it remains to be seen if this will lead to diplomatic engagement between North Korea and the US, which continues to seek the North’s denuclearization.
As a South Korean military interpreter participating in a combined exercise with the US on August 29, 2017, my day began with a jolt, as a North Korean ballistic missile hurtled toward Japan at 6:00 a.m.
Not knowing the exact trajectory in the first few minutes, I quickly headed into underground bunkers near Seoul with my fellow service members.
Radars predicted that the missile would cross Japan’s airspace over its northernmost island, Hokkaido. Japan was faced with two options: shoot it down or let it pass.
The Japanese government chose not to intercept that missile. It ultimately fractured into three pieces and landed in the Pacific Ocean, but debris could have fallen onto unsuspecting citizens. Even worse, an actual nuclear strike could wipe out an entire city.
With North Korea demonstrating its ability to reach most of the US, improving missile-defense systems has quickly become a concern for everyday citizens.
Tokyo’s decision to disregard that ballistic missile compelled me to ask whether South Korea, Japan, and the US were well prepared for such missile threats.
Layered defenses, split-second decisions
The US defends its territory with a layered system that has several chances to intercept a North Korean missile: in the boost phase soon after launch near the Korean Peninsula and Japan, again over the ocean during the missile’s midcourse phase, and lastly near US territory as the missile enters its terminal phase.
All three options, however, need much improvement.
An intercept over the ocean is challenging because Aegis ships and fighter jets must anticipate where it will impact, which is made more challenging by the fact that Aegis ships and fighters have never attempted to intercept a ballistic missile in combat.
For land-based defense, the Pentagon has slammed its own flagship system, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense, for its insufficient radars and unreliability: Its success rate is barely over 50%.
Improving the intercept ability of South Korea and Japan has therefore been important to the US’s own national interests.
The US’s recent termination of the missile guidelines it imposed on South Korea in 1979 is a step toward allowing its allies to prepare defenses for North Korea’s long-range missiles.
With limits on the range and payload of its missiles now lifted, South Korea will be able to develop advanced missile-defense systems that could help deter long-range missile attacks.
My experience dodging North Korean missiles, however, highlights the need to review the intercept process further to reduce the risks posed by needing to make a split-second decision. Hesitance to shoot down missiles shows that technological ability does not necessarily equal safety.
Why did those countries decide not to respond during that August 2017 missile test? Within minutes of the launch, most countries could tell from radar tracking that the missile was headed toward the Pacific Ocean.
In the case of Japan, the government may have decided not to attempt to do so simply because it was an unnecessary risk. The missile appeared unlikely to harm civilians, and, more importantly, a failed attempt would send a catastrophic message that its US-backed missile system cannot stop North Korean missiles.
A second possibility, however, is that Japan’s Aegis destroyers were unable to intercept the missile in the first place.
The North Korean missile reached an altitude of 550 km, higher than the 500-km range of the Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor. The Aegis interceptor may also have not been in the right place, as the missile passed over a region that is not a routine training area.
Why didn’t South Korea try to shoot it down? South Korea’s US-made Terminal High Altitude Defense (THAAD) system reports a 100% test rate, but it has never been used in combat.
THAAD is also designed to shoot down missiles as they re-enter the atmosphere during their terminal phase. The North Korean missile was only in range during its first two phases: boost and midcourse.
Military and diplomatic challenges
What can be done about future missile tests?
In order to shoot down a missile during its boost phase, a ship with an SM-3 would have to be right next to the launch site and intercept immediately upon launch.
As the US military has noted, boost-phase intercepts are quite unlikely due to the challenges in anticipating a launch and the decision process needed to approve such a response. For fighter jets to intercept a missile in that phase, the jets would need to be at a provocatively close distance to the launch site.
None of the missile defenses in Japan or South Korea – which include US-made Patriot missile systems – can intercept missiles during their midcourse phase.
South Korea could technically develop a midcourse defense in the future, but past pushback from China indicates there will be a substantial challenge to doing so. Seoul suffered as much as $7 billion in economic losses when China boycotted Korean products in response to the deployment of the THAAD system.
With nearly one-quarter of South Korea’s exports and one-fifth of Japan’s exports going to China, safely navigating the US-China rivalry while ensuring a defense against North Korean missiles will be a complex military and diplomatic task.
Jessup Jong is a Korean Army veteran (Intelligence Branch at the Transportation Command) and a master’s student at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is “Human Suffering in North Korea.”
Kim is said to be about 5 foot 7 inches tall, so at more than 300 pounds, the North Korean leader, who is said to be in his mid-30s, would be considered severely obese and potentially at risk for a variety of health problems. The risk is higher given his affinity for chain smoking and heavy drinking, not to mention the high stress of running a brutal regime facing significant international pressure for its illegal weapons programs and human rights abuses.
In the 2019 book “The Great Successor: The Secret Rise and Rule of Kim Jong Un,” seasoned reporter and North Korea expert Ana Fifield described the young leader as looking “like a heart attack waiting to happen.”
But after a decade of substantial weight gain, his weight now appears to be dropping.
“Seeing respected general secretary (Kim Jong Un) looking emaciated breaks our people’s heart so much,” a Pyongyang resident said during a Korean Central Television broadcast, Reuters reported. “Everyone is saying their tears welled up.”
Although it is possible that a noticeably slimmer Kim could be the result of an illness, the South Korean lawmaker who discussed the intelligence community’s view of the situation said there do not appear to be any health abnormalities, Bloomberg reported.
Specifically, there is nothing strange about how he walks, nor has he stopped holding “hours-long meetings,” the lawmaker said.
Kim’s health, his weight included, gets a lot of scrutiny from the intelligence community because it offers insight into the health and stability of the North Korean regime, especially considering the uncertainty surrounding succession if the regime’s third leader dies young.
“Succession is very unclear if something were to happen to Kim Jong Un,” Sue Mi Terry, a North Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, previously told Insider. “We know he’s unhealthy. So we need to care” about his weight gain, loss, and overall health.
Terry said that leadership health is probably “one of the most important indicators” of regime stability. For North Korea, she said, “Kim Jong Un’s health is the biggest wild card.”
June 25, 1950, saw troops from North Korea pouring across the 38th parallel into South Korea. This began a short, yet exceptionally bloody war.
There are those that refer to the Korean War as, “the forgotten war” as it did not receive the same kind of attention as did World War II or the Vietnam War. However, despite the lack of attention given to it, the Korean War was one of great loss for both sides involved – both civilian and military.
Even now, 70 years later, the Korean War is given less notice than other conflicts and wars in history. It is just as important and just as worthy of remembrance as anything else.
To honor those that fought, those that died, and those that were wounded in Korea between June 25, 1950, and July 27, 1953, here are five facts about the Korean War:
38th Parallel still divides the two countries
The 38th Parallel was the boundary which divided the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the North and the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the South.
Despite the original desires of the UN and the US to completely destroy communism and stop its spread, the Korean War ended in July 1953 with both sides signing an armistice which gave South Korea 1,500 extra square miles of territory, and also created a 2-mile wide demilitarized zone which still exists today.
It was the first military action of the Cold War
After World War II ended, the world entered a time period known as the Cold War. The Cold War lasted from 1945 until 1990.
It was a period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union and the United States and their allies. The Korean War was the first military action following the end of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War.
American leaders viewed it as more than just a war against North Korea
North Korean troops invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. By July, US troops had joined the war on South Korea’s behalf.
This is partly due to the fact that President Harry Truman and the American military leaders believed that this was not simply a border dispute between two dictatorships, but could be the first step in a communist campaign to take over the world.
President Truman believed that, “If we let Korea down, the Soviets will keep right on going and swallow up one place after another.” They sent troops over to South Korea prepared for war against communism itself.
Gen. MacArthur was fired from his post
By the end of summer 1950, President Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Asian theater, had set a new goal for the war in Korea. They set out to liberate North Korea from the communists.
However, as China caught wind of this, they threatened full-scale war unless the United States kept its troops away from the Yalu boundary. The Yalu River was the border between North Korea and communist China.
Full-scale war with China was the last thing President Truman wanted, as he and his advisers feared it would lead to a larger scale push by the Soviets across Europe. As President Truman worked tirelessly to prevent war with China, Gen. MacArthur began to do all he could to provoke it.
In March 1951, Gen. MacArthur sent a letter to House Republican leader, Joseph Martin, stating that, “There is no substitute for victory,” against international communism.
For President Truman this was the last straw, and on April 11 he fired Gen. MacArthur from his post for insubordination.
Millions of lives were lost:
Between June 1950 and July 1953, approximately 5 million lives were lost. Somewhere around half of those were civilian casualties.
American troops saw approximately 40,000 soldiers die in action in Korea, and more than 100,000 were wounded.
These numbers made the Korean War known as an exceptionally bloody war, despite the fact that it was relatively short.
North Korea’s leader told his government to prepare for confrontation with the United States.
Kim Jong Un addressed his government on Thursday, and the Korean Central News Agency reported he “stressed the need to get prepared for both dialogue and confrontation, especially to get fully prepared for confrontation,” according to The Associated Press.
He said this was needed “in order to protect the dignity of our state and its interests for independent development and to reliably guarantee the peaceful environment and the security of our state.”
G7 leaders demanded the “verifiable and irreversible” disbandment of North Korea’s nuclear program when they met in the UK earlier this month.
A confidential UN report seen by Reuters in February said North Korea maintained and developed its nuclear and ballistic missile programs through 2020, even in the face of international sanctions.
Reports in May said US President Joe Biden’s administration had been trying to contact North Korea “to reduce the risks of escalation,” but didn’t get a response.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he finds censorship on college campuses more disturbing than the Taliban.
“I get asked all the time, what keeps you up at night,” Pompeo said in an interview that aired Friday. “What’s the thing that worries you the most?”
Speaking to businessman John Catsimatidis on his radio show, “Cats at Night,” Pompeo said he’s “met with a lot of bad people” during his time as an official working under the Trump administration.
“I met with the Taliban, I met with Chairman Kim,” he said. “None of that scares me as much as what’s happening in our universities and on our campuses today.”
“Wow,” Catsimatidis said in response.
Pompeo continued, elaborating but not citing specific examples:
“I watch what’s taking place there and the inability for us to speak our mind, the fact that people want to put pressure on people who have a conservative mindset, and just deny them the space to go speak,” he said. “The fact that we now are accusing people who are just saying things that are common sense about how to treat everyone equally, fairly, are being accused of being racist – those are dangerous things in our democracy, in our republic.”
Pompeo went on to say the country’s founders “created a nation that depended on people with virtue and character and faith.”
“If we lose those things,” he said, “if we lose the bubble on those, you can send diplomats to 180 countries in the world and none of it will matter because if America is weak at home, our capacity to influence the world is diminished.”
In December, the South Korean media outlet reported that the North Korean government had put into effect a sweeping new “anti-reactionary thought” law aimed at curbing foreign influence, such as films, music, and even slang from overseas.
Hairstyles may seem like a weird thing for the North Korean government to fixate on, but as Peter Ward, a North Korea researcher, previously told NK News, “first it’s haircuts, then lifestyle choices, then values, and then potentially fundamental questions about power, money and the way society is structured.”
North Korea is clamping down on foreign influence in a big way, and the question is why now.
‘Re-establish social control in a time of hardship’
Expert North Korea watchers explained to Insider that the North Korean leadership appears to be correcting in the aftermath of failed diplomatic engagement with the US and South Korea, as well as reacting to the challenges posed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
As it did in other countries, the pandemic hit North Korea’s economy hard, especially with the strict lockdown of the country’s borders. But while other countries, such as China, have started to bounce back, North Korea has not.
As North Korea isolated itself from the world, the country has seen tougher enforcement of laws against illicit activities, attire, and materials.
“Part of this is trying to reassert the power of the party and trying to re-establish social control in a time of hardship,” Jenny Town, a Senior Fellow at the Stimson Center and the Director of Stimson’s 38 North Program, told Insider.
She said “we generally see crackdowns when there is more domestic hardship than usual,” times when the leadership is under increased pressure. Choi Jong-hoon, a North Korean defector who escaped last year, told the BBC that “the harder the times, the harsher the regulations, laws, [and] punishments become.”
Though it impacted the country’s already weak economy, the lockdown response to the pandemic also created an opportunity for North Korean leadership to severely restrict the flow of outside information and influence into the country, which had been on the rise until recently.
‘Re-establish the idea that this information is bad’
After a tense year and fears of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula, the situation shifted in 2018, when President Donald Trump met Kim Jong Un in Singapore. Trump would meet Kim two more times, in Vietnam and later at the Demilitarized Zone.
Amid the unprecedented engagement between the leaders the American president and the North Korean leader, there was also significant engagement between North and South Korea.
South Korean K-pop singers performed for Kim in Pyongyang in the summer of 2018, and then the following month, South Korean president Moon Jae-in visited the North Korean capital.
But that welcome period of decreased tension and rapprochement did not last as talks ran into insurmountable obstacles, and no one walked away from the table pleased with the outcome.
“Things did not work out the way Kim Jong Un had hoped,” Jean Lee, a North Korea expert at the Wilson Center, told Insider. In turn, “he has to reshape the message and make clear to the people that we’re shifting gears here and we’re not ready to open up.”
She explained that Kim Jong Un is “trying to regain control over the people” and “where they’re getting their information.”
“One of the after effects of the political process falling through is just trying to re-establish the idea that this information is bad,” Town said, referring to the influx of foreign culture.
‘Tightening and enforcing these rules and retracting’
The latest cultural crackdown and campaign to cut foreign influence on North Korean society is not a new phenomenon in the country’s history. There have been others, not just under Kim Jong Un, but also under his father and grandfather.
For countries like North Korea, leaders have to find a balance between opening up and cracking down on what actually gets in the country.
“Kim Jong Un recognizes that in order for the economy and the country to grow and progress, it needs interaction with the outside world,” Lee said. “But with that comes the risk of losing control.”
“They’ve created this world with such a specific narrative, and the risk of exposing people to the reality of how the real world works is a risk that they are afraid to take,” she said. So, when “things are precarious, politically or economically, you see them tightening and enforcing these rules and retracting.”
Although the latest efforts to crack down on foreign influence is not new, Lee told Insider that it does appear rather extreme. “We all want to see North Korea open up,” she said. “So, when you see them tightening down like this, it’s very worrying.”
South Koreans often refer to their country with a famous proverb: “In a fight between whales, the shrimp’s back gets broken.” But rather than a shrimp, Seoul is betting that it can become a dolphin, giving it more agency and maneuverability as competition heats up between the United States and China.
Getting it right would allow the country to balance its security alliance with the United States along with its economic dependence on China. Getting it wrong would see South Korea alienated in the region, distrusted by both Washington and Beijing. This balance will prove difficult, but South Korean leaders are unlikely to stop trying.
Upon taking office in 2017, Moon faced a Chinese economic pressure campaign in 2017 over his predecessor’s decision to install the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system, known as THAAD. He sought to normalize relations with Beijing by agreeing to the “three no’s” – no more THAAD deployments, no South Korean integration into a regional US missile defense system, and no trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan.
More importantly, though, the focus on Moon’s presidency misses the broader trends in South Korea’s foreign policy. Moon and his fellow progressives are not alone in seeking a middle ground between the United States and China.
There are virtually no prominent conservative national security experts in South Korea calling for the country to openly side with the United States in an anti-China coalition. Doing so would put the country’s economy at risk, as South Korea exports more to China than it does to the US, Japan and the European Union combined.
Even if a conservative candidate wins the 2022 presidential election, South Korea’s approach to relations with the US and China will remain unchanged. After all, it was Moon’s conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who attended China’s parade to commemorate the end of World War II in 2015 – the only democratic leader on the stage with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
The prospect of aligning with the US in an anti-China coalition is made even more unlikely by the view – common among South Korea’s progressive and conservative foreign policy elites alike – that Washington is an increasingly unreliable partner. The economic coercion campaign that China undertook following the March 2017 deployment of THAAD, which the United States heavily pushed for, eventually cost South Korea an estimated $7.5 billion.
There is now serious concern that Trump – or someone more organized and dangerous – could return to the White House in the future, putting the alliance in serious jeopardy. That possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand, reinforcing South Korea’s preference for maintaining maneuverability.
On the other hand, a closer alignment with China is also improbable, due in part to public attitudes.
In Chicago Council polling, China’s favorability rating in South Korea is now on par with North Korea and Japan. This decline is largely driven by the economic coercion campaign that followed the THAAD deployment, as well as ongoing battles over sensitive cultural and historical issues.
Moreover, 60% of South Koreans say that China and South Korea are mostly rivals. Majorities from members of the two main political parties – the ruling Democratic Party (54%) and the conservative People Power Party (63%) – agreed, as did majorities from all age cohorts.
Not only do South Koreans see China as a rival, they also view it as more of an economic threat (60%) than an economic partner (37%) and as more of a security threat (83%) than a security partner (12%). However, only 51% of South Koreans say that China’s economic power is a critical threat, and 53% say the same about China’s military power.
Far more people view declining birthrates (81%), climate change (76%) and North Korea’s nuclear program (62%) as critical threats.
That should not be taken as evidence that South Koreans are naïve about China and its intentions, however. Nearly nine in 10 say that China will seek to displace the United States either in the Asia-Pacific (28%) or in the world (60%).
Ultimately, there may not be a pressing need for South Korea to closely align with either great power, as it is not standing idly by in terms of its own defense. Under the supposedly dovish Moon administration, the country saw its two biggest year-on-year defense spending increases in its history, with an 8.2% increase in 2019 and 7.4% in 2020.
Roh Moo-hyun, the last progressive president before Moon Jae-in, presided over construction of a deep-water naval port on Jeju island, South Korea’s southernmost point. The advance of the South Korean navy is in part a natural outgrowth of South Korea’s growing security interests around the world. But Seoul also has one eye on China and its territorial ambitions.
South Korea is in an unenviable position, and it will face growing scrutiny as it seeks to balance its economic and security interests. But the growth of its own national power has opened up previously closed spaces as it seeks to swim – not idly float – among the whales. Its ability to strike that balance will depend on not getting its tail caught.
Karl Friedhoff is the Marshall M. Bouton fellow for Asia studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @KarlFriedhoff.
“His [Biden’s] statement clearly reflects his intent to keep enforcing the hostile policy toward the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as it had been done by the US for over half a century,” Kwon Jong Gun, a senior North Korean Foreign Ministry official, said in a statement published by North Korean news agency KCNA.
“It is certain that the US chief executive made a big blunder in the light of the present-day viewpoint,” Kwon continued. “We will be compelled to press for corresponding measures, and with time the US will find itself in a very grave situation.”
Kwon’s comments follow White House press secretary Jen Psaki outlining the Biden’s administration’s “calibrated, practical approach” to North Korea on Friday.
Psaki told reporters on Air Force One that the US had completed its review of US policy towards North Korea, Axios reported.
“Our goal remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula with a clear understanding that the efforts of the past four administrations have not achieved this objective,” Psaki said, the Associated Press reported.
“He beat around the bush and failed to pull it through,” Moon said, referring to Trump’s efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider.
During his single term in the White House, Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un several times to discuss denuclearization. His interactions with Kim were historic – Trump was the first sitting US president to enter North Korea.
But by the time Trump left office, the rogue state had not given up a single nuclear weapon. North Korea has also continued provocative missile tests.
Though he was critical of Trump’s efforts on North Korea, Moon during his interview with the Times urged President Joe Biden to engage with Pyongyang to succeed where his predecessor failed. Moon emphasized that denuclearization is a “matter of survival” for South Korea.
“I hope that Biden will go down as a historic president that has achieved substantive and irreversible progress for the complete denuclearization and peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said.
In late March, the White House said Biden was unlikely to pursue a face-to-face meeting with Kim, though the president has signaled he’s open to diplomacy with North Korea.
Trump excoriated Moon over his comments in a statement on Friday.
“Kim Jong-un of North Korea, who I have gotten to know (and like) under the most trying of circumstances, never respected the current President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. I was always the one who stopped the aggression toward the South, but unfortunately for them, I am no longer there,” Trump said.
The former president went on to say that Moon was “weak as a leader and as a negotiator, except when it came to the continued, long term military ripoff of the USA (as is the case with many other countries we protect!).”
Trump’s relationship with Kim was controversial and perplexing to foreign policy experts. Early on in his presidency, he traded numerous threats and insults with the North Korean leader from across the globe – sparking fears of a nuclear war. But Trump’s tone shifted drastically in 2018 ahead of his first summit with Kim. Over the rest of his time in office, Trump repeatedly showered Kim with praise and referred to him as a “friend.”
In a recent interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump defended his relationship with Kim.
“When I came in President Obama said… ‘the biggest problem we have is North Korea. There’s going to be a war’. There was no war, we got along great,” Trump told Hannity. “[Kim Jong Un] writes me letters. I like him, he likes me. There’s nothing wrong with that.”