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Biden renews pledge to protect South Korea from nuclear weapons

WASHINGTON — In the four years since President Donald J. Trump’s leader-to-leader diplomacy collapsed after a failed meeting in Hanoi with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has expanded so rapidly that U.S. and South Korean officials have Admit that they have stopped trying to keep an accurate count.

North Korea’s missile tests are so frequent that they attract more shrugs than headlines in Seoul.

So when President Biden welcomes South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to the White House on Wednesday, only the second state visit of Mr. Biden’s presidency, few will pretend that disarming North Korea remains a plausible goal.

Instead, U.S. officials said Mr. Biden’s most vivid pledge to Mr. Yin would focus on what arms control experts call “extended deterrence,” reiterating a pledge that the U.S. nuclear arsenal would be used to dissuade or respond to North Korea if necessary. North Korea nukes South.

The emphasis on deterrence is a startling acknowledgment that all other efforts to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program over the past three decades, including diplomatic persuasion, crippling sanctions and the occasional promise of development assistance, have failed. It is also aimed at quelling growing calls in South Korea to have its own independent arsenal, as North Korea is highly likely to make a suicidal decision to use nuclear weapons.

North Korea’s arsenal will by no means be the only topic of discussion during Mr Yoon’s visit. He and Biden will also celebrate the 70th anniversary of their alliance, pledge to get South Korea to invest more in semiconductor manufacturing and plan to strengthen Seoul’s ever-fraught relationship with Japan.

But the rapid expansion of North Korea’s capabilities has long been a topic of mutual concern. At a recent security conference held by the Harvard Korea Project, several experts said they believed Kim was targeting something close to the size of the arsenals of Britain and France, which each have between 200 and 300 weapons.

Mr Biden and Mr Yoon are expected to cling to the possibility of pursuing a diplomatic solution to achieve what successive administrations have called the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”. But North Korea has declined to respond to a series of public and private messages from Biden and his aides, administration officials said.

What now appears irreversible is North Korea’s deeply entrenched advanced program.

With China expanding its arsenal to 1,500 weapons by around 2035, according to Pentagon estimates, and Russia threatening to use tactical weapons in Ukraine, “it’s not an easy external environment to talk to North Korea,” said Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University Professor, directed North Korea policy during the George W. Bush administration. “They look around and say, ‘I don’t think so.'”

As North Korea ushered in his presidency with missile launches, Mr Trump vowed “fire and fury the world had never seen”; he finally tried the innovative approach of direct diplomacy with Kim Jong-un. At one point he predicted that Kim Jong Un would start disarming within six months, and at another time he declared that North Korea “is no longer a nuclear threat”. The arsenal is always growing.

On Friday, North Korea’s foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, repeated what his government has said frequently in recent months, saying North Korea’s “status as a world-class nuclear power is final and irreversible.”

Few experts believe the shift in language or the threat of pre-emptive strike shows North Korea is more willing to use nuclear weapons. The reaction will be devastating. But gone are the days when U.S. officials viewed the arsenal as a bargaining chip that could be traded for a trade deal or for a string of hotels that Mr. Trump said the U.S. would help build on North Korean beaches.

Joseph S. Nye, who oversaw one of the first U.S. government intelligence assessments of North Korea, said there was a false belief that “they were going to try to cash in their chips and get some” nuclear weapons out of it. But he told the Harvard conference that North Korea’s highest goal is not to develop the country but to “preserve the dynasty,” which means preserving and expanding its arsenal.

North Korea’s renewed confidence in expanding its nuclear arsenal is due in part to changing relations with China, U.S. officials said in interviews. Previously, the U.S. worked with Beijing – North Korea’s key energy and trade supplier – to take control of the country. In the mid-2000s, China even hosted the so-called six-party talks — North Korea, Japan, Russia, the United States and South Korea — to resolve the nuclear issue. When Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test, Beijing often voted for sanctions, and imposed some.

Now, China no longer sees North Korea as an unruly, angry neighbor and welcomes it, along with Russia and Iran, as part of what White House officials say is a coalition of aggrieved people. While Chinese officials are presumably concerned that North Korea’s nuclear tests could go awry and create a radioactive cloud, it seems perfectly happy that North Korea conducts regular missile tests, unnerving the United States and its allies.

Pyongyang’s recent tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles — including one powered by solid fuel, which allows it to roll out of hiding and launch quickly — suggest that North Korea can now almost certainly reach U.S. territory, even if it hits specific Targeting capabilities are imprecise. Over the past year, North Korea has codified its nuclear capabilities into its law and has begun talking up its preemptive strike capabilities, rather than describing its arsenal as purely defensive.

On March 27, North Korea also released photos of Kim Jong-un inspecting Hwasan-31, a kit of small standardized nuclear warheads that can be mounted on its various nuclear-capable missiles and drones.

Hong Min, an expert on North Korean weapons at the Korea Institute for Unification in Seoul, said that if the module was real, the photos would mean that North Korea was showing off its ability to mass produce standardized nuclear warheads. Mr Kim also called for the mass production of nuclear warheads to “exponentially” grow the country’s nuclear arsenal. Last month, he ordered his administration to step up production of weapons-grade nuclear material.

South Korean officials say some of North Korea’s claims, such as its underwater drone and supersonic missile capabilities, are exaggerated. The response from Washington and Seoul has been to vow to strengthen their alliance – something made easier by the fact that Mr Yoon has been much tougher on how to deal with North Korea than his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, who visited He. Biden May 2021.

As a result, the two leaders are expected to hold detailed public discussions on “extended deterrence,” while Biden proposes more regular and visible visits by nuclear submarines and aircraft to South Korea in support of recently resumed and expanded joint military exercises. (Under Mr. Trump, the exercise has been suspended and scaled back in various ways.)

Kim Tae-hyo, Yoon’s deputy national security adviser, said the top agenda item for the summit was how to boost South Korea’s confidence in Washington’s commitment to protect its allies with a nuclear umbrella. But South Korean officials say it depends more on their confidence in the sitting U.S. president — and on Washington’s willingness to risk entering a nuclear war if North Korea uses tactical nuclear weapons against South Korea.

What Mr. Biden said at Wednesday’s news conference will be split as they may or may not speak to his determination to take the risks of nuclear engagement.

A new cyber initiative will also be announced: the North funds nuclear programs by stealing cryptocurrencies and attacking central bank reserves, while the South, though little discussed, has developed a skilled military force loosely based on US Cyber ​​Command. Offensive Cyber ​​Corps.

Outsiders will also look for signs of temporary or permanent damage in leaks of Pentagon and CIA documents in recent weeks that make clear the U.S. is listening to top South Korean national security officials as they debate whether to fire shells into Ukraine. The news came as a huge embarrassment to Mr Yin, as it showed a lack of trust in him from his greatest ally.

But officials said they believed Mr. Yoon would go beyond that, celebrating cultural ties to the United States and the South Korean company’s boom in semiconductor factories.

South Korean officials say they won’t demand one thing: the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to their country. They were withdrawn in 1991.

Assistants to Mr Yin said they did not want them back.

David E. Sanger Reporting from Seoul and Washington. Choi Sang-heon Reporting from Seoul.

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