North Korea’s Provocations Aim to Strain US Alliances: Analysts
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Photo: USS Carl Vinson

By Daniel Robinson*

In a bid to disrupt the burgeoning security cooperation among the United States, South Korea, and Japan, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is deliberately sowing discord between Tokyo and Seoul, analysts say. The recent trilateral naval drills conducted by Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo in the waters south of Jeju Island were met with an increasingly hostile stance from Pyongyang.

The exercises involving nine ships, including the USS Carl Vinson, aimed at enhancing deterrence against North Korean nuclear, missile, and underwater threats. However, North Korea responded with bellicose rhetoric, declaring South Korea as its “principal enemy” and indicating plans for occupying its southern neighbor in the event of war.

Kim’s aggressive stance reached a new level with the test-firing of a solid-fuel intermediate-range ballistic missile with a hypersonic warhead and artillery shell firings near the disputed maritime border with South Korea. Notably, North Korea extended condolences to Japan after an earthquake, marking the first time Kim personally reached out to a Japanese prime minister.

Analysts suggest that while the immediate aim may be to create friction between Japan and South Korea, the underlying goal is to strain the relationship between Japan and the United States. Kenneth Dekleva, a senior fellow at the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations, emphasizes Kim’s attempt to test the U.S.-South Korea relationship, particularly in light of recent threats of war.

At the Camp David summit, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan agreed to cooperate on measures to bolster deterrence against North Korea. Kim’s provocations now seem aimed at challenging this alliance. Dekleva points out, “Another intention of equal importance is to test the U.S.-ROK relationship, especially given the recent dangerous, bellicose threats of war made recently by Kim Jong Un.”

The North Korean leader’s speech at a planning meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party on December 31 indicated preparation for war with the U.S., South Korea, and Japan. While North Korea criticizes the trilateral ties formed after the reconciliation of Seoul and Tokyo in March, experts believe Kim’s messaging suggests an openness to engagement, possibly aiming to manipulate Japan’s self-interest against the alliance.

Ken Gause, an expert on North Korea’s leadership, notes that North Korea is attempting to position Japan in a dilemma, forcing a choice between its interests and those of the broader alliance. The abduction issue, a highly emotional agenda in Japan, remains a potential point of engagement. Prime Minister Kishida has expressed a willingness to meet Kim to discuss the return of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the past.

Shihoko Goto, Asia program director at the Wilson Center, sees Kim’s message of condolence as a potential opportunity for dialogue and improved relations between Japan and North Korea. However, she emphasizes that Tokyo will align with Seoul and Washington in deterring North Korea, given the shared perception of Pyongyang as an existential threat. As tensions rise on the Korean Peninsula, the strategic balance in the region becomes increasingly complex.

*Daniel Robinson, a highly esteemed collaborator at Smartencyclopedia, specializes in the critical domains of national security, government affairs, country intelligence, military strategy, and intelligence operations. With an unwavering commitment to these fields, Daniel is a crucial asset to our platform.

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