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US intel: Deterrence against North Korea is working

Two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancers assigned to the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, deployed from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, flew from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, for a 10-hour mission, flying in the vicinity of Kyushu, Japan, the East China Sea, and the Korean peninsula, Aug. 7, 2017 (HST). (U.S. Air Force/Released)
January 27, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The return to the U.S. policy of deterring North Korean aggression against the South by threatening a devastating counterattack is working, a senior U.S. intelligence adviser said Thursday.

The comments came in the wake of a new report detailing “dramatic” construction underway at North Korea’s main rocket launch site, which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to shutter in 2018 amid his short-lived detente with then-President Donald Trump.

Speaking at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event, Sydney Seiler, the national intelligence officer for North Korea at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, said the return of U.S. policies of “extended deterrence” against the North were proving a success.

“The good news is, for now, North Korea is understanding of the overwhelming strength of the U.S.-R.O.K. alliance. It is fully aware of our commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea,” Seiler said, adding that the Kim regime was also clearly irked by growing U.S. links with regional powers Japan, Australia and India.

But Seiler said he was not concerned about renewed North Korean and Chinese propaganda decrying the return of U.S. deterrence policies and growing American regional alliances across Asia. Instead, he said the fervent response to both “proves to me they’re working.”

“China will continue to deploy rhetoric, North Korea will probably increase that rhetoric with a lot of tension, increasing shows of force and training, etc., to try to discourage us,” he said, but “the mere deployment of these capabilities is not likely itself to lead to some inevitable escalation that we need to be worried about.”

Satellite launch construction

Seiler’s remarks came two days after CSIS issued a report detailing what it called “dramatic and ongoing” construction at the North’s main rocket launch site, the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, located near its northwestern border with China. Kim visited the site in March and ordered officials to expand its capabilities.

The CSIS report says the expanded development appeared intended to “support the long-term goal of launching larger and more capable space launch vehicles,” such as military reconnaissance satellites, even if such capabilities were not currently in place.

“If all the announced modernization plans are completed and operational, it will provide North Korea with a comprehensive complex” with technology “useable by North Korea’s emerging intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) programs,” it says.

The resumption of the development of the facility, which Kim pledged to shutter during his detente with Trump, has been a key plank of North Korea’s response to renewed U.S.-led deterrence policies.

Not all are as sanguine about the Kim regime’s likely reaction to the return of the “deterrence” policies preferred by the administrations taking office in Washington and Seoul over the past two years.

Speaking at the same CSIS event as Seiler, Sue Mi Terry, the director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center, said she was not sure Pyongyang would necessarily always flinch from conflict.

“I don’t want to say that Syd is not concerned – obviously he’s concerned – but I think I’m more concerned,” Terry said.

She highlighted Pyongyang’s recent launch of short-range missiles that simulated a tactical nuclear strike on the South and its new law outlining when it would use nuclear arms in a conflict, which she described as “lowering the threshold for nuclear use.”

“North Korea has demonstrated its ability to deploy tactical nuclear weapons, [and] they’ve been focused a lot on tactical nuclear weapons,” Terry cautioned. “We don’t know what Kim Jong Un is thinking. I don’t want to be dismissive about that.”