Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman speaks at the State Department in Washington on August 18, 2021. Photo: Pool / US State Department

SEOUL – US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman has warned North Korea that it would face a “swift and forceful response” if it tests a nuclear device, claiming in the same breath that “the entire world will respond in a strong and clear manner.”

The statement, made in Seoul on June 7, pours more fuel on the fire that has been heating up around the flashpoint Korean peninsula amid indications that Pyongyang is set to detonate a nuclear device.

North Korea overturned its self-applied 2018 moratorium on test firings of intercontinental ballistic missiles in May. Now, intelligence analyses and statements by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggest that Pyongyang is on the verge of next nullifying its nuclear test moratorium.

But it’s not clear that American tough talk would be backed up with tough action if North Korea goes through with a new nuclear test.

In fact, it has been clear for decades that the US – for all its military, economic, diplomatic and political heft – lacks workable leverage over the isolated, heavily militarized, nuclear-armed and fiercely independent state.

Shows of military force – as seen on Monday (June 6), when the US and South Korea test-fired tactical missiles, and on Tuesday, when they deployed jets after North Korean test-fired ballistic missiles on Sunday – are certainly possible.

But a kinetic response looks out of the question given the potential for a cycle of escalation that rapidly spirals from military and mass civilian deaths on the peninsula to a potential cross-Pacific nuclear exchange.

Economically, North Korea has weathered a storm of international and national sanctions for years, with especially severe measures applied since 2016. Yet, its weapons of mass destruction research and deployment continue apace.

Diplomatically, amid fast-polarizing great power competition, the past unanimity on North Korea in the UN Security Council has recently cracked with China and Russia vetoing the latest round of US-proposed sanctions on North Korea.

Politically, the last issue points to a wider challenge to the US and its allies in the region. 

China and Russia’s defense of North Korea at the UN was just one incident in a series of recent events that suggest emerging trilateral coordination between Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang. This nascent three-way partnership may be rising as a counter to the US as it seeks to upgrade its alliance networks in the region, including through the so-called Quad.

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman has warned North Korea against conducting a nuclear test. Photo: AFP / Pool / Andrew Harnik

Sherman’s comments came after North Korea test-fired eight short-range ballistic missiles on June 5. That generated a response the following day when South Korea and – unusually – the US conducted their own test firings of eight missiles.

On Tuesday, the two allies deployed 20 jet fighters in a show of force over the Yellow Sea west of the peninsula.

Thus far in 2022, North Korea has tested 31 ballistic missiles – the most in a single year, according to US Special Representative on North Korea Sung Kim, who spoke yesterday in Washington. Kim said that Pyongyang could conduct a nuclear test “at any time” as “they’ve obviously done the preparations.”

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi told the agency’s board on Monday that entrances to North Korea’s underground nuclear test site at Punggye-ri have been re-opened and activity at other nuclear sites across the country is underway.

Tunnels at Punggye-ri were collapsed with explosives during North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic dalliance with then-US president Donald Trump in 2018. Cynics then suggested that the event was more flash than substance.

After Trump walked out of a summit with Kim in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2019, relations refroze. In 2021, at a party congress, North Korea unveiled a large list of weapons it plans to develop including hypersonic missiles, which it claims to have tested in January, and tactical nuclear weapons. Pyongyang’s previous atomic research has focused on strategic weapons. 

Sherman is in the region meeting with Japanese and South Korean counterparts to discuss the perennial and seemingly intractable issue of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Today in Seoul, the three deputy foreign ministers –Takeo Mori, South Korea’s Cho Hyun-dong and Sherman – pledged to upgrade trilateral cooperation to counter the North’s security threat. The meeting of the trio, who will convene again in the Fall, is a follow-up after US President Joe Biden’s first Asian trip, on which he visited both Seoul and Tokyo in May.

Washington has long sought to upgrade trilateral security cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo, with which it maintains separate bilateral alliances. But historical grievances have long strained ties.

That upgrade may, at last, be feasible given the unusual posture of newly inaugurated South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has made improving relations with Japan one pillar of his foreign policy platform.

The Biden administration has been seeking to weave alliance networks in East Asia ever tighter. Beyond Seoul-Tokyo, these relationships include the Quad – a dialog body rather than an alliance per se – and 2021’s AUKUS pact, which unites Australia, the UK and US.

And America’s key Asia ally Japan has also been firming up its defense relationships with partners as diverse and distant as ASEAN countries, Australia and the UK. Highly unusually, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida may join this month’s NATO summit.

But experts are cynical about both an effective response to North Korea and its nuclear weapons threat.

Aerial view of North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Image: Wikipedia

“I was a little bit surprised when she said that,” Daniel Pinkston, who teaches international relations at Troy University, said of Sherman’s strong comments. “She is a seasoned diplomat and to say ‘forceful’ seems like armed force, a use of force. But use of force against a nuclear test has never happened.”

Indeed, North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests since 2006, without facing any military action. And Washington’s current heavy focus on Ukraine argues against any kind of strike.

“The military option is off the table,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea specialist at Seoul’s Asan Institute. “Any kinetic option is bound to escalate and the US cannot afford such a distraction at the moment.”

If North Korea goes through with a nuclear test, Go expects “the classic textbook” response, namely deployment of strategic US assets to the region such as nuclear bombers, submarines and aircraft carriers.

He also suggested that more South Korea-US exercises could be conducted in and around the peninsula – placing psychological pressure on Pyongyang, which considers them preparation for an invasion. “I am not talking about annual exercises,but more informal and ad hoc drills,” Go said.

He also expects the US to transfer more sophisticated equipment to South Korea, such as ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) assets and missile interceptors, while upgrading interoperability as Seoul continues “OPCON Transfer.”

The transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean armed forces from Washington’s to Seoul’s command is a slow process that has been underway since 2007. At the time, it was expected to be completed by 2012, but as yet, there is no date for its expected achievement. Still, an ongoing upgrade of South Korean capabilities is built into the plan.

Sanctions have a long record of failing to rein in Kim’s WMD programs, and currently, North Korea is in virtual economic siege mode. After closing its borders since the advent of the global Covid pandemic, it has more recently locked down economic activities as it struggles to contain a nationwide Covid outbreak.

“They have been inflicting damage on their own economy by closing down and shutting down,” Go said. “That shows the outside world that they are immune to sanctions.”

Even so, Go said one possible avenue of pressure is upgrading the low-profile Proliferation Security Initiative, or PSI, under which the US and its allies enforce US sanctions on North Korea by monitoring and interdicting North Korean shipping in international waters. The PSI deploys both naval and air assets.

On the high seas, power-hungry North Korean ships have turned off their transponders while taking onboard fuel transfers from other vessels.

Currently, the PSI “is not at maximum capability,” said Go, who anticipates the US will upgrade the operation and the South Korean Navy will take a bigger role under the Yoon government than it had under the prior Moon Jae-in administration.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un continues to be a thorn in the side of the US. Photo: AFP / KCNA via KNS / Stringer

In possible anticipation of this, there has been very recent pushback against the PSI by China.

Canadian surveillance planes overseeing United Nations sanctions on North Korea and operating from US bases in Japan are being repeatedly buzzed by Chinese jets that fly so close that the Canadian crews have had to change course, Canada’s military claims. The revelation was made at a Canadian military press conference last week.

China responded by saying that the Canadian aircraft were endangering China’s national security.

Moreover, Chinese and Russian aircraft have been cooperating in joint exercises in Northeast Asian skies, notably in the Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZs) established unilaterally and without a foundation in international law by both Japan and South Korea.

And North Korea appears to be coordinating its ballistic missile tests with these fly-throughs, Asia Times has learned.

On March 23-24, Chinese aircraft and then Russian planes flew through the ADIZs, followed hours later by the test-firing of a ballistic missile by North Korea. The exact same sequence of events was repeated on May 24-25, as Biden wound his up Asia tour.

In January, UN Security Council members China and Russia vetoed a US-led initiative to impose more multilateral sanctions against Pyongyang for its ongoing missile tests.  That was reportedly the first time since 2006 that the UN Security Council had split over punishing North Korea.

“It is possible,” that China-Russia-North Korea security cooperation is underway, Pinkston said. “Authoritarian regimes are transactional and there are opportunities in engaging in this kind of coordinated behavior.”

Given the “uncertainty in the world now,” the three capitals may be “testing the waters and seeing what they can do,” he added.