North Korea last week pre-empted major joint military exercises by the US and South Korea with test-firings of nuclear-weapon-capable cruise missiles from its submarines. It was North Korea’s sixth missile test this year, and was followed by leader Kim Jong Un’s oversight of weekend drills simulating a nuclear counterattack against both countries.
Pyonyang’s sabre-rattling comes at a time of growing regional tensions as an increasingly assertive China also protests at plans announced by the US and UK to collaborate with Australia to build nuclear-powered submarines. The US has been working to build alliances against both North Korea and China. In South Korea, the leader of the ruling party has been speculating publicly that the country may have to “seriously consider” developing its own nuclear weapons as a deterrent to its northern neighbour.
The South Korean government has also started a major diplomatic rapprochement to Japan, with whom relations have been frozen. Last week’s Tokyo visit by President Yoon Suk Yeol, the first summit between the two countries in 12 years, was hailed by Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida as “a new chapter” in their relations. It was made possible by Seoul dropping its demand that Japanese companies compensate Korean victims forced into labour during the second World War, a contentious issue for years.
Yoon’s willingness to set up a state fund to compensate victims, instead of relying on Japanese companies, is controversial and polling suggests deep hostility to what 56 per cent of people describe as “humiliating diplomacy.” In theory the South Korean courts may yet demand the seizure of Japanese corporate assets.
Despite military nervousness, given both countries’ heavy interdependence on China’s economy, neither is interested in a new cold war with Beijing. Their alliance could instead be a means of pushing the US into a more nuanced and placatory approach to confrontation with China, an approach that would find some sympathy in Europe.