TOKYO — On his first trip to the region as president, President Joe Biden will arrive in Seoul on Friday, landing in a difficult region at a volatile time.
Biden will strive to strengthen connections with regional partners and promote his vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, but he will do so as North Korea threatens to conduct another nuclear test.
At the same time, US allies South Korea and Japan continue to feud over historical grievances, preventing bilateral relations from improving.
North Korea continues to portray itself as a strongly armed nation that its adversaries, particularly superpowers, should be wary of engaging with.
Last month, the official Korean Central News Agency revealed photos of Kim Jong Un, the country’s leader, overseeing a beautiful night parade in Pyongyang, complete with soldiers marching in perfect line and ICBMs.
“Any forces that initiate a military conflict with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will perish,” Kim is said to have said in a furious speech.
Since 2021, North Korea has steadily improved its missile technology, dramatically expanding testing, including alleged hypersonic missiles in January, a submarine-launched ballistic missile, or SLBM, in May, and a successful intercontinental ballistic missile test launch.
It was the first of its sort in years, and Kim may decide to launch more ICBMs during Biden’s visit.
Each test launch has become the new normal, with the US and its allies issuing terse rebukes and Japan, predictably, condemning the act, filing concerns with the UN, and promising to exchange information.
The North appears to be repairing tunnels at its Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, which has hosted all six of North Korea’s underground nuclear tests to date. Punggye-ri was famously deconstructed “transparently” in front of the world’s media in 2018. “The site at Punggye-ri is capable of testing a nuclear bomb in short order,” a US official told ABC News in 2022.
“Intelligence does reflect the genuine possibility that there will be either a further missile test, including a long-range missile test, or a nuclear test, or frankly, both, in the days leading up to, on, or after the president’s trip to the region,” US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Wednesday.
“We’re preparing for all possibilities,” Sullivan said, “including the likelihood that such a provocation would occur when we’re in Korea or Japan.”
The North “may be ready to conduct a test there as early as this month,” according to the Biden administration.
Wagons in a circle
Biden will travel to Japan and South Korea, two important regional allies with a tense history of relations. Yoon Seok-youl, South Korea’s newly elected conservative president, has called for a thaw.
“There has never been a time when strategic collaboration between the two nations, and between them and the United States, has been more vital,” Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said, adding that there is no time to waste in enhancing bilateral ties.
Despite the leaders’ conciliatory overtures, experts say neither side is eager to take the initiative to overcome the differences.
The demands for unification, according to Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, are music to Washington’s ears.
“The US wants its friends to work together to combat modern challenges, but they remain divided over their shared history. Because both countries’ histories are heavily political, improving relations will be tough “he added.
The two countries’ recent inability to see eye to eye is a wake-up call, according to Kingston, for those who believe they can overcome their colonial heritage. “They fight over land, such as the Dokdo/Takeshima islets, and whatever else comes along.”
Professor of international relations at Sogang University in South Korea, Jaechun Kim, is similarly sceptical that walls can be quickly repaired.
Despite expressing a desire for deeper ties with Japan, President Yoon is walking a tightrope, according to Kim.
“There’s a limit to how proactive he can be here,” he told ABC News, “since surrendering on ‘historical’ problems toward Japan is politically deadly in the Republic of Korea.”
Kim stated that Japan and Korea will have to establish some common ground.
“On historical concerns, we should not expect or press for progress. That’s not feasible “he said. “Rather, the two countries will have to deepen cooperation on issues where their interests overlap, such as economic engagement and maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, and trilateral security cooperation between the Republic of Korea, Japan, and the United States in Northeast Asia to bolster deterrence and defence against North Korea’s nukes and missiles.”