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A Look Ahead: North Korea’s Strategic Moves in 2024 – The Diplomat

Since the breakdown of the 2019 Hanoi Summit between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea has openly beefed up its missile capabilities. Also, with the election of Yoon Suk-yeol, the conservative South Korean president, in March 2022, tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been aggravated by the explicit power game between the two sides.

In light of the current security environment, this article forecasts how North Korea will likely behave toward the United States and South Korea in 2024.

Explicit Military Cooperation Between North Korea and Russia
Amid the strengthened South Korea-U.S. alliance, North Korea showed its clear intention to enhance ties with Russia to keep its leverage on the Korean Peninsula. This was made explicit at the summit between Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 13, 2023.

In the past few months, Kim’s diplomacy has fully focused on strengthening ties with Russia, including hosting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Considering his vow to faithfully fulfill agreements made with Putin, Kim will likely continue to support Russia in 2024, which will give Washington and Seoul no chance to renew the stalled nuclear talks with Pyongyang.

Putin’s plan to completely suppress Ukraine in a short period has been impeded by the unexpected resistance of Ukrainians. To continue the “special military operation” in Ukraine, Putin needs munitions from like-minded leaders, and Kim is one of them. Although North Korea has denied accusations that it is supplying munitions to Russia, there have been numerous reports to the contrary.

According to the White House, North Korea delivered 1,000 containers of equipment and munitions to Russia in September. The South Korean spy agency believes that North Korea has sent more than a million artillery shells to Russia since August. Also, the South Korean military suspects North Korea of sending several types of missiles to Russia involving short-range ballistic missiles, anti-tank missiles, and portable anti-air missiles.

Now the question is what Putin is giving to North Korea in return for its munitions support. Considering North Korea’s hardship caused by the devastating U.S. and U.N. economic sanctions, Kim could have asked Putin for cash, energy, and weapons technologies transfers. For example, it’s widely believed that Russia provided support to North Korea to successfully launch its first military satellite, which Putin promised to do during his summit with Kim.

North Korea’s Successful Military Reconnaissance Satellite Launch
On November 22, North Korea claimed that it has successfully placed a spy satellite into orbit. According to the North’s space agency, its “Chollima-1” carrier rocket placed the “Malligyong-1” satellite into orbit on the night of November 21. After previous attempts in May and August failed due to technical issues, Pyongyang finally succeeded on its third attempt. Notably, North Korea had originally vowed to try a third launch in October. Given the delay, it is presumed that North Korean missile scientists were working with Russia to send its satellite into orbit successfully. To better monitor South Korea and other areas, North Korea has vowed that it will launch more spy satellites. However, the South’s spy agency reported the North is unlikely to conduct another satellite launches this year.

To counter criticisms from the United States and its allies, North Korea has reiterated that its military reconnaissance satellite launch is a sovereign right that should not be restrained by outside forces. However, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan strongly condemned the launch.

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson called the launch “a brazen violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions.” She said it “raises tensions and risks destabilizing the security situation in the region and beyond.” She also added that the space launch “involved technologies that are directly related to the DPRK intercontinental ballistic missile program.” (DPRK is an acronym of the North’s official name: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.)

On November 30, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned eight foreign-based North Korean agents that allegedly “facilitate sanctions evasion, including revenue generation and missile-related technology procurement” to support the North’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. In response to the North’s spy satellite launch, South Korean President Yoon approved his National Security Council’s decision on November 22 to partially suspend the military agreement that was reached by then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un during the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in September 2018. It is the South’s first formal suspension of agreements made with North Korea since the two Koreas made their first agreement in 1991.

According to Seoul, Pyongyang has already violated the 2018 military agreement ceaselessly by conducting military activities near the inter-Korean borders, which are banned under the agreement. If North Korea continues to launch spy satellite rockets or test ballistic missiles, Seoul said it will suspend the remaining clauses agreement and reinvigorate front-line aerial surveillance and live-fire exercises at no-fly zones near the inter-Korean borders.

A day after Seoul made its decision to partially suspend the military agreement, the North Korean Defense Ministry firmly vowed to immediately restore all military measures that were halted under the agreement. It also threatened to deploy powerful and new military weapons to the military demarcation line.

Assuming that the North would successfully obtain useful images of U.S. and South Korean military bases through its reconnaissance satellite, it will ultimately enhance the North’s preemptive and precision strike capability with a more favorable monitoring environment.

Pyongyang Holds out, Hoping for Negotiations With Trump
Amid North Korea’s emphasis on diplomacy with Russia and focus on a military buildup, there has been no sign of interest in resuming stalled talks with the United States. As U.S. President Joe Biden’s policy on North Korea appears to be an updated version of the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” approach, North Korea has not been interested in renewing the stalled nuclear talks with the United States. Biden prefers a traditional bottom-up approach when tackling security challenges, where working-level officials reach agreement on concrete issues before high-level meetings occur.

The Biden administration has reiterated that it is willing to negotiate with North Korea “anytime, anywhere, with no preconditions” since it finalized its policy review on North Korea, but Pyongyang has not responded to this message. Since the failed Hanoi talks, North Korea has made clear that it will insist on sanctions relief as a preemptive gesture before renewing the stalled nuclear talks. Unlike Biden, Trump preferred a top-down approach to complicated security issues. Considering Kim Jong Un’s similar preference, Pyongyang would want Donald Trump to be re-elected in the 2024 presidential election so that Kim can again attempt to persuade Trump to lift the economic sanctions against his country. Despite Trump’s decision to walk out of the Hanoi summit with no deal in February 2019, North Korea still has reason to prefer him to other leaders. Pyongyang might have concluded that other U.S. politicians are likely to pursue the “Libya model,” which pressures the Kim regime to withdraw its nuclear weapons first before the normalization of relations with the United States. Due to the ugly fate of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was murdered by rebels, Kim Jong Un will never accept this approach; if he returns to talks with the United States, Kim will continue to insist on a phased denuclearization process with a reciprocal approach. It is uncertain, however, that a future Trump White House would be interested in dealing with North Korea issues, as the degree of North Korean nuclear threats is incomparable with the ongoing Ukraine War and Israel-Hamas War for the United States. In this context, Pyongyang will focus on developing more powerful nuclear weapons to raise the ante for future negotiations with Washington.

No Inter-Korean Dialogue
Ever since Yoon assumed the presidency, Pyongyang’s attitude toward Seoul has been crystal clear. Due to Yoon’s hawkish overture on North Korea – which is no different from his conservative predecessors’ – Pyongyang ruled out the possibility of negotiating with Yoon early in his presidency.

During U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Seoul in November, he met his South Korean counterpart Shin Won-sik and signed a new version of the Tailored Deterrence Strategy agreement. This was the first revision in a decade to effectively address the North’s growing nuclear programs.

According to Shin, the new document demonstrates the United States’ firm commitment to the South’s security. In the event of a North Korean nuclear proliferation, it allows Washington to provide extended deterrence, which Poses ensures an “escalation control strategy across all domains.” But it also clears the way for the Korean military to plan its role in deterring Pyongyang with more specific details & plans.

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