AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
On Monday, following a barrage of missile tests over the past several weeks, North Korean state media announced that the launches were to simulate an attack on U.S. and South Korean targets. In addition to placing countries throughout Asia on high alert, the news highlights the glaring failures of the Biden administration when it comes to dealing with the threat from North Korea, a sharp reversal from the historic progress seen during the Trump administration.
Over the course of the past few weeks, North Korea has launched seven ballistic missiles, including an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) which sent residents in some northern Japanese cities fleeing for bomb shelters. As the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a statement: “Through seven times of launching drills of the tactical nuclear operation units, the actual war capabilities… of the nuclear combat forces ready to hit and wipe out the set objects at any location and any time were displayed to the full.”
Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada commented that North Korea’s unprecedented pace of missile launches represents a threat to the peace and security of his country, the region, and the international community. Notably, North Korea’s IRBM program is now believed capable of striking U.S. targets on Guam.
The hermit kingdom’s aggressive attitude toward the West is hardly a new development, but this most recent intensification of hostilities should prompt President Joe Biden to change his priority when it comes to North Korea from mutual disarmament to missile defense. Indeed, it seems that Biden has undone much of the progress of his predecessor – primarily by failing to keep the same sort of pressure on the country that provided Trump with excellent leverage to force North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table.
Throughout his four years in office, Trump oversaw three summits with the North Koreans, in Singapore, Hanoi, and Seoul. In Singapore, Kim ultimately agreed to a framework for denuclearization. In 2019, Trump took the historic step of becoming the first sitting U.S. President to set foot in North Korea, seemingly a positive sign. The immediate tangible effect of these talks resulted in the release of American prisoners and abstention from testing medium or long-range missiles, as well as a new type of missile.
However, soon after taking office, Biden abandoned Trump’s progress and resorted to Obama’s failed approach of “strategic patience,” which allowed North Korea to build up its nuclear arsenal in the first place. While abandoning Trump’s strategy of personal outreach and dialogue with Kim, Biden has also failed to enforce congressionally approved sanctions on North Korea, in effect allowing the regime to continue its malign activities unimpeded.
As a result, Kim has ramped up North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to an unprecedented level, posing a grave threat to both the United States and its allies in the region. The North Korean military has tested 25 ballistic missiles this year alone, and experts now say that the country has between 20 and 30 nuclear warheads ready to use in a potential conflict.
Under Biden’s watch, North Korea has also developed and successfully tested a new hypersonic glide vehicle missile called the Hwasong-8 that moves three times the speed of sound, and has recommenced testing of the Hwasong-12 missile – dubbed the “Guam Killer.”
North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament also passed a law last month saying that the country has a right to launch a preemptive nuclear strike “automatically,” with Kim saying that the new law makes the country’s nuclear status “irreversible.” This frightening new development effectively precludes further talks of denuclearization, reversing the progress made under the Trump administration.
While Biden cannot undo his failures, he can take decisive action to upgrade U.S. missile defense and response systems. All 50 states are currently defended by 44 ground-based missile interceptors (GBI) in Alaska and California. But many of these GBIs in the ground are almost two decades old and long overdue for an upgrade. Similarly, missile defense systems on Guam and other U.S. military bases in Asia are also in need of updating.
In response to these concerns, Congress in 2020 added significant funding for the military’s Service Life Extension Program for some of these missile defense systems. But in 2022 Biden reduced funding for this program from $600 million to $41 million, again leaving the country’s most valuable military assets vulnerable to North Korea’s rapidly advancing missile technology.
As Biden continues to send billions of dollars to Ukraine and other far-flung regions of the world, he should not forget the defense priorities of the United States. While Biden’s failures have emboldened perhaps more dangerous adversaries like Russia and China, the threat from North Korea is not one any U.S. administration can afford to ignore.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.
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