There could not have been a more wrong time. The United States withdrew from Afghanistan, risking a fool globally, also to focus on its strategic priorities: reaffirm the American presence in Asia Pacific and target China’s rise in the area. Now, however, Joe Biden risks finding a “new” rather thorny dossier in his hands, potentially capable of compromising Washington’s Asian strategy. That is to say a resurgence of the historic Korean crisis.
Double missile test on the Korean peninsula
The tension on the peninsula has in fact returned to very high levels. Already over the weekend, the Kim Jong-un regime tested a new type of long-range cruise missile, a few days after the night parade which celebrated the 73rd anniversary of the country’s founding. The missiles traveled for just over two hours, 7,580 seconds, over territorial waters, before hitting the target in the open sea at a distance of about 1500 kilometers. This was the first launch since last March, when, however, short-range missiles had been tested, therefore much less insidious than those launched in recent days. But Pyongyang did not stop. Also on Wednesday 15 September, two ballistic missiles were launched which flew 800 kilometers, reaching a maximum height of 60 kilometers before ending up in the Sea of Japan.
Contrary to what has happened several times in the past, South Korea has reacted significantly this time. Also on Wednesday, in fact, Seoul tested the submarine ballistic missile launch. This is the first time the South Korean military has (successfully) experimented with this technology. Significantly, the test took place a few hours away from the North Korean one and above all it was directly supervised by President Moon Jae-in. According to a note from the presidential palace, the new missile will play a “major role” in establishing peace on the Korean peninsula and represent a “sure deterrent to North Korean provocations”.
Stopping dialogue with North Korea from Trump to Biden
But the situation got worse again. Not from now, but for over a year already. No progress has been made in intra-Korean and international dialogue with Pyongyang since 2019. After the impromptu meeting of 30 June 2019 in the demilitarized zone between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, there have been no more summits. Indeed, diplomacy has almost completely disappeared. So much so that in May 2020 North Korea blew up the Kaesong liaison office, which served as a diplomatic glue with the southern part of the peninsula. Now even Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, has threatened the “total destruction of bilateral relations if Moon joins the” slander “operations carried out by the United States against Pyongyang.
Joe Biden has not been able to relaunch relations for now, on the contrary, the line of the new American administration seemed more confused in Pyongyang than in other areas of Asia Pacific. And now Kim has decided to present the bill. The missiles could be interpreted as signals of the need to return to a table to negotiate. Biden would also be available, but the news is that Seoul seems to be about to adopt a more assertive line, also because in March 2022 there are presidential elections and the election campaign climate is approaching. The same goes for Japan, another country directly involved in the possible escalation. Tokyo is also preparing for the internal elections of the majority Liberal Democratic Party, which will shortly appoint the new leader in view of the general elections in October.
The role of China in the Korean crisis
In short, no one can afford too soft a line in the face of Pyongyang’s new actions. China is trying to calm people down. Just at the same time as the double launch of missiles from both sides of the peninsula, the foreign minister of Beijing, Wang Yi, was in Seoul on yet another mission in South Korean territory in recent months. Wang is in fact working to prepare the ground for a state visit by Xi Jinping to Seoul, postponed several times first for the Covid-19 pandemic and then for Washington’s attempts to bite. Beijing wants to underline its indispensable role as an intermediary to restart the intra-Korean dialogue. Which it can do with the Moon administration, given that the Democrats are in favor of the dialogue line, while it would be much more difficult if after the 2022 elections there were a change of sides in the Blue House.
The risk is that an escalation could occur, which even if it did not lead to a real confrontation would take Washington’s attention away from China in a new crisis that no one hopes for.