For months now, with the United States distracted by war in Europe, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has largely been free to accelerate his weapons programs. President Biden – along with U.S. allies Japan and South Korea – needs to start making life harder for him.

South Korea Koreas Tensions

People at a Seoul, South Korea, train station March 25 watch a news report about North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korea said it test-fired its biggest-yet ICBM under the orders of leader Kim Jong Un. Kim’s scientists have conducted 16 missile tests since the beginning of the year. Lee Jin-man/Associated Press

Kim’s scientists have conducted 16 missile tests since the beginning of the year, possibly including a failed launch of a gargantuan Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile. A new nuclear test may be imminent. Left unchecked, North Korea could ultimately deploy a suite of delivery systems from multiple-warhead ICBMs to nuclear-armed hypersonic glide vehicles and sea-launched ballistic missiles. A bolstered arsenal could outmatch U.S. missile defenses, allow Kim to threaten American cities with nuclear attack and raise doubts about whether the United States would come to the aid of South Korea or Japan in a conflict.

Kim has little reason to slow down. Loose sanctions enforcement by China and Russia continues to help the North Korean leader maintain power and fund his weapons programs. The Ukraine war has underscored what can happen to countries that surrender their nuclear deterrents. Moreover, keeping up a stream of flashy test launches gives the regime something to boast about internally, at a time when the economy appears to be reeling.

At the same time, though, the United States and its Asian allies are arguably better positioned to confront Kim than before. The election of conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol has brought South Korea into closer strategic alignment with Japan and the United States than it’s been in years. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Chinese threats over Taiwan have prompted leaders in Tokyo to take a far more muscular stance on defense than would once have seemed possible. In Washington, too, a strong bipartisan consensus supports bolstering the U.S. military posture in Asia. All three countries seem more willing to risk tensions with China in pursuit of their goals.

On his visit to South Korea and Japan, Biden should push for a more coordinated and forceful effort to contain the North. The first priority should be to cut off the flow of money, materials and components North Korea needs to build its missiles and mobile launchers. The United States should be as prepared to levy secondary sanctions on Chinese companies and banks for helping North Korea as for helping Russia. Treasury and cybersecurity officials should redouble efforts to thwart the North’s cybertheft operations, from which it’s estimated to reap hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The three allies should also work together to upgrade their defensive and offensive capabilities. The United States should support Yoon’s desire to resume joint military exercises, deploy additional missile defenses to protect Seoul and speed development of a homegrown interceptor system similar to Israel’s Iron Dome. While it would be unwise to deploy U.S. nuclear weapons on the peninsula, as many South Korean conservatives want, the Biden administration should help both Tokyo and Seoul improve their capacity to disrupt North Korean missile launches and destroy launchers in a crisis.

None of this should mean closing the door to diplomacy. Indeed, the United States may want to propose specific sanctions relief or other incentives if Kim agrees to a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. The North Korean leader may be more likely to return to the table, though, if the cost of not doing so rises.

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