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Opinion Kim Jong Un is adopting Putin’s Ukraine playbook

Troops perform a gun salute during a parade marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People's Revolutionary Army in Pyongyang, North Korea, in a photo released April 26. (Kcna via Reuters)
5 min

After two years of self-imposed pandemic-related isolation, a megalomaniacal, totalitarian dictator is threatening to attack his democratic neighbor while rattling his nuclear saber at the West. Three months ago, this would have perfectly described Russian President Vladimir Putin. Today, it also fits North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

It’s no coincidence that Kim is becoming more aggressive in his actions and statements since Putin brazenly attacked Ukraine. As Putin rewrites the geopolitical textbooks on risk, deterrence, escalation and nuclear brinkmanship, his pupil Kim is clearly taking notes. While Washington is focused, understandably, on the crisis in Europe, Kim is upping the ante in East Asia.

“It seems that North Korea’s strategy has changed,” Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University, told me. “When they started their nuclear program decades ago, they thought about deterrence and self-defense. Now they are working on a program which will one day make conquest possible — conquest of the South, of course.”

He and other experienced Korea-watchers are sounding an alarm because they see Kim mimicking Putin’s Ukraine strategy in two important ways: moving toward an offensive conventional military posture and altering the country’s nuclear doctrine to dissuade the West from interfering in a potential conflict with South Korea. This doesn’t mean Kim is necessarily going to attack South Korea. But it does mean the risk of Kim making that reckless move is increasing, said Lankov.

On the tactical side, Kim is testing and amassing an arsenal of new and more dangerous missiles that seem geared for an offensive attack. Since Putin invaded Ukraine, North Korea has conducted four ballistic missile tests, including two tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile that might be able to reach the continental United States. This month, Kim tested a new guided missile that his government claims could deliver tactical nuclear weapons on a battlefield. Commercial satellite images show that Kim is preparing for his first nuclear test since 2017, which could come any day.

North Korea is also changing what it says about how and when it might use nuclear weapons against its enemies, especially in South Korea. This month, Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong threatened to use nuclear weapons to “annihilate” South Korea in any armed confrontation. This week, Kim himself declared that North Korea’s nuclear forces had a “secondary mission” beyond deterring war, which many interpret to mean for offensive purposes.

The Biden administration is practicing a rehash of the Obama administration’s “strategic patience,” which amounts to waiting for North Korea to come to the negotiating table. But the countries around North Korea do not have the luxury of waiting for the next crisis to break out. The incoming South Korean government is promising to take a harder line with Pyongyang and bolster South Korea’s defenses. Japan’s prime minister recently declared that Tokyo and Seoul have “no time to waste” in improving their long-troubled ties.

The Biden administration rhetorically supports better trilateral cooperation and condemns Kim’s belligerence — but what new approaches will President Biden actually bring to the region when he visits Tokyo and Seoul next month?

Considering that North Korea is quickly altering the military balance of power in its favor, the United States must respond to Japanese and South Korean requests for deeper military cooperation. But that’s not enough. The truth is, if Kim is willing to take the risk of military retaliation, military hardware alone won’t be able to stop him.

One lesson of Putin’s war on Ukraine should be that only firm defensive alliances with clear commitments can keep aggressive dictators at bay. Perhaps there is an appetite in East Asia for a NATO-type military alliance (likely including Australia) that would convince Kim that South Korea is not a country he can attack with impunity.

Of course, South Korea hosts more than 28,000 U.S. troops and is a formal U.S. ally, unlike Ukraine. But after President Donald Trump’s talk of bringing the troops home and Biden’s pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Kim could draw the same conclusion that Putin did — that the United States no longer has the resolve to defend democracies far from its borders. .

In addition to bolstering alliances and deterrence, the United States should also actively pursue diplomacy with Pyongyang, said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He said the Biden administration should push for a limited deal that freezes North Korea’s nuclear program in place, in exchange for limited sanctions relief, while leaving denuclearization for a later date.

“The problem is, if we defer to him and let him create the crisis, now we’re reacting,” O’Hanlon said. “We should not make the same mistakes with Kim Jong Un that we made with Putin.”

The best way to deter all dictators who menace their democratic neighbors is to make sure that Putin fails in Ukraine so that leaders in Pyongyang or Beijing don’t follow suit. But Kim’s increasingly aggressive actions and statements can’t be ignored. And the West can’t assume the pre-Ukraine rules of risk and deterrence apply to a post-Ukraine world.