North Korea is nearing a terrifying nuclear reality
As Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping meet in Moscow and Iran normalises relations with Saudi Arabia, it's easy to overlook the other great opponent of the Western order. It is also foolish. Last week saw North Korea launch an intercontinental ballistic missile – one of four missile tests in the week – as it continues to develop its nuclear capabilities. Britain must not overlook this potent threat to the free world.
The timing of these launches was no coincidence. Pyongyang has a habit of exploiting the external security environment to its benefit, and last week's launches took place at a time when the United Nations Security Council is at its most impotent and divided since its post-war inception. With global eyes on Moscow and Beijing, the two veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council are reviving early Cold War friendships following the anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The time is ideal for North Korea to conduct a much-speculated seventh nuclear test, and escape sanctions-free.
Second, while Pyongyang may not yet want to create formalised partnerships with its Cold War patrons, it has found itself in a position where both Moscow and Beijing are keen to shield it from the consequences of its actions. North Korean arms are keeping the Russian Wagner Group functioning in its Ukrainian operations, and China wants to ensure stability on the Korean peninsula; both will assist Pyongyang in evading any sanctions that might follow.
The prospect of North Korea developing an effective nuclear deterrent is one that should alarm the West. While a great deal of attention has been devoted to the Iranian nuclear programme, Pyongyang's continued efforts to improve its arsenal highlight a fundamental truth: as the international order frays, more states will wish to acquire nuclear weapons of their own. Consideration of an independent nuclear deterrent by some South Korean leaders speaks volumes to this possibility.
The prospect of a nuclear South Korea is a question that has occupied analysts for decades. Seoul has proved a valuable ally not just to Washington but to London. Securing stability on the Korean Peninsula does not require more nuclear proliferation, but a strengthening of existing bonds. This was underlined by the other events taking place even as North Korea's missile fell into the waters just outside Japan's exclusive economic zone. Overcoming decades of tensions over over the legacies of Japan’s 1910 annexation of Korea and the sexual abuse of Korean women during the Second World War, the Japanese Prime Minister met his South Korean counterpart in Tokyo for the first time in a dozen years, while Seoul's military held joint exercises with its American allies.
One summit cannot resolve decades-old issues, but the meeting highlighted a lesson for the United Kingdom and its allies. Now is the time for unity, not division. Notably lacking in a Nato-style collective defence institution, the need to strengthen regional security in East Asia has never been so urgent.
There are already organisations that Japan and South Korea can be drawn into to provide structure to our alliances. Seoul has expressed interest in becoming a full member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. Japan would be a valuable addition to the Aukus security pact. Britain's offer of assistance to Italy and Japan in developing next-generation fighter jets could be extended to South Korea's naval forces.
The United Kingdom is uniquely placed to play a leading role in these developments, with Whitehall successfully maintaining diplomatic relations with North Korea, its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and its intention to "tilt" its geostrategic considerations towards the Indo-Pacific. We cannot simply watch North Korean nuclear technology creep towards viabilities, even if the warheads will be targeting Tokyo and Washington rather than London.
In the past year, Pyongyang launched a record number of over 70 missiles. Not even an unholy combination of a global epidemic, draconian border closures, and resultant economic devastation could divert its nuclear ambitions. Now, with the world in disorder, Kim Jong Un will hope that attention will stay drawn from his efforts. China’s rhetorical calls for a "peaceful resolution" of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine will likely fall on deaf ears, setting the stage for the hermit kingdom of North Korea to continue exploiting a polarised liberal international order.
The United Kingdom must take North Korea seriously. We must be realistic. While we can't denuclearise North Korea alone, we can bolster our support to our Eastern allies, South Korea and Japan, against their increasingly reckless nuclear neighbour.