By Anna Kim
Last Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong threatened “dreadful attack” and “a miserable fate little short of destruction and ruin” for South Korea, warning that if the country “opts for military confrontation with us, our nuclear combat force will have to inevitably carry out its duty.” The comments were in response to South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook’s recent statement that South Korea maintains precision strike readiness toward the North if it detects intent to fire missiles at the South. While South Korea has maintained its current “three-axis” system for a military response to North Korean missile strikes for years, the doctrine has received more attention since South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol publicly endorsed it during his campaign.
Kim’s tough talk echoes that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has paired his country’s invasion of Ukraine with multiple nuclear threats. These included a warning that external interference in the war would be met with “consequences that you have never faced in your history,” following Russia’s elevation of its nuclear forces to high alert and conduct of drills with its nuclear submarines and land missiles.
Although easy to dismiss as the bluster of dictators, this open expression of nuclear threat is an unwelcome trend and cannot be allowed to become the norm. It heightens the risk of misperception between nuclear states, and it could be used to rationalize potential nuclear proliferation in Ukraine and South Korea. Rather than make anyone more secure, however, more nuclear proliferation would only serve to greatly compound nuclear risk. Instead, this proliferation of nuclear threats should serve as a reminder of the cruciality of arms control and diplomacy to preventing nuclear escalation.
During his campaign, Yoon criticized the previous South Korean administration’s approach to North Korea as having “completely failed,” while advocating for the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and U.S. bombers, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines in South Korea — moves that are certain to heighten tension with North Korea.
However, there remain avenues for strategic cooperation including the two Koreas on arms control and non-proliferation. Yoon also said that he would seek nuclear talks with North Korea based on “denuclearization and reciprocity.” In the same remarks where Kim threatened nuclear attack, she said that North Korea wants to avoid war and that her brother believes North Korea’s “principal enemy is just war itself.” If the United States can provide South Korea with reassurances of its commitment to the bilateral alliance that avoid emphasizing the role of nuclear weapons — for example, by proposing a strategic dialogue or bolstering crisis communications and military interoperability — and resist matching North Korea’s inflammatory rhetoric, it would help avert the much more dangerous scenario that would emerge if both Koreas were to have nuclear weapons.
Although the increase in nuclear threats from Russia and North Korea could make diplomacy all the more challenging, it should serve as a reminder of how important it will be to remain open to arms control and the possibility of limited arsenals, dialogue, and strategic stability. Where there are windows for cooperation, the United States should aggressively pursue options that will prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons and diminish their ability to be used by world leaders as an ultimatum.