In 2012, the Obama Administration launched the 'Pivot to Asia' doctrine, an ambitious foreign policy plan that sought to direct US efforts towards Southeast Asia. Days before its publication, North Korea reported the sudden death of its former supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, an event that accentuated the importance of a plan that sought, among other things, to maintain close relations with allies and adversaries in a region in turmoil in order to jointly manage common challenges and challenges.
A decade later, with that doctrine stalled as a result of the chain of crises, Obama's former vice-president, Joe Biden, is promoting Washington's definitive landing in the region in the middle of another: Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The US president seems to have a clear roadmap for consolidating his position in the Indo-Pacific, but he is walking a path mined by his regional rivals.
Biden will visit Seoul later this week on a regional trip that will also take him to Tokyo. The president is scheduled to review the 30,000 US troops in the country, and on Saturday he will hold a meeting at the presidential office in Yongsan with his counterpart Yoon Suk-yeoul, the conservative former prosecutor elected in March, with whom he will discuss defence and security issues amid North Korea's continued weapons tests.
According to information gathered by South Korean and US intelligence services, the regime in Pyongyang is preparing a hostile reception for President Biden. Kim Tae-hyo, deputy director of the country's national security bureau, revealed on Wednesday during a press conference that Seoul fears an atomic test or the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. If carried out, it would be the first time in five years that North Korea has fired such a missile, breaking North Korea's self-imposed moratorium on such tests.
"We have been told that they are in the last phase of missile launch tests and a nuclear test, so all I can say is that we would not be surprised if more missiles are launched or another nuclear test is conducted at any time," Kim Tae-hyo told the media. "Preparations for a nuclear test have been completed and they are just looking for the right time," South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said.
Kim Jong-un is expected to make a show of force. The North Korean dictator's aim, according to analysts, is to send a message to Washington and attract world attention during the visit of Biden, who has so far projected an image of a certain passivity towards Pyongyang despite a drastic increase in weapons tests. In January alone, North Korea conducted as many as seven tests, more than in any other calendar month on record.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan confirmed the information obtained by Seoul on Wednesday. "Our intelligence picks up the real possibility of a new missile test, including a long-range missile test, or a nuclear test, or frankly both in the days leading up to, during or after President Biden's trip to the region," Sullivan told a news briefing.
"We are preparing for all contingencies, including the possibility of such a provocation occurring while we are in South Korea or Japan," he said. This "provocation", in Sullivan's terms, has altered the security arrangements for the visit. The South Korean government announced, in the words of Kim Tae-hyo, the establishment of a "plan B" to minimise the risk, which would involve changing the timetable for the meeting between the two presidents.
The satellite images show that the regime in Pyongyang has begun preparations for what would be its seventh nuclear test so far this year, the icing on the cake for a new record number of launches. Since the beginning of the year, Kim Jong-un has shown his most belligerent image by ordering hypersonic, short-, medium- and long-range ballistic missile tests, boasting an enormous arsenal to instil fear in his neighbours.
The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in 2021 the more than likely restart of the Yongbyon reactor, believed to be its main source of weapons-grade plutonium, on the basis of satellite imagery. The IAEA warned at the time that the nuclear programme was at cruising speed, with plutonium separation and uranium enrichment work underway.
These threats come in the midst of an unprecedented explosion of contagions in North Korea. A week ago, the secretive dictator appeared on state television to announce, for the first time since the emergence of COVID-19 in January 2020, cases of coronavirus in the country. An unprecedented image that has the international community fearing for the consequences of the pandemic in a fragile state, with hardly any health resources, whose budget is absorbed by the army.
Biden and Yoon Suk-yeoul will discuss ways to provide health assistance to Pyongyang, although the North Korean regime has so far not responded to proposals for foreign aid. "It's not that we don't want to help, but judging from what seems to be North Korea's perception of things, they don't seem to be in the mood to come out and discuss cooperation," Kim Tae-hyo acknowledged. Biden and Yook are committed to dialogue to address denuclearisation of the upper 38th parallel.
Former President Trump attempted the move three times during his term, but was unsuccessful during his meetings with Kim Jong-un. The Trump administration made little progress in dismantling North Korea's nuclear programme despite promises from the regime in Pyongyang. Biden, for his part, has other plans.
Americas Coordinator: José Antonio Sierra