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From Pyongyang with Threats: Is Kim Jong-un Priming for War?

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From Pyongyang with Threats: Is Kim Jong-un Priming for War?

Recent tensions on the Korean peninsula have raised the specter of renewed conflict. Though possible, a second Korean War remains highly improbable at this stage.

In his 1982 Commencement Address at Eureka College in Illinois, President Ronald Reagan stated that “[P]eace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means” [1]. That proposition is increasingly being tested in Northeast Asia where recent North Korean moves served as a powerful reminder of the persistently precarious nature of regional stability and security. On the Korean peninsula, tensions have reached their highest level in years, following a range of North Korean weapons tests and an ominous speech by Kim Jong-un in January. If these events are a harbinger of things to come in 2024, the Northeast Asian security environment may well begin to test its ability to preserve the “long peace” in East Asia [2].

The increase in tensions was certainly not entirely unexpected. Back in December 2022, at the Plenary Meeting of the Party Central Committee, the North Korean regime re-emphasized the “head-on confrontation” (정면승부 대적투쟁) with South Korea and identified it as “a clear enemy beyond doubt” (의심할 바 없는 명백한 적) [3]. Meanwhile, in its 2022 Defense White Paper, released on 16 February 2023, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense pointedly noted that “North Korea…does not hesitate to engage in strategic and tactical provocations using various means and methods” (북한은…다양한 수단과 방법으로 전략적·전술적 도발을 서슴지 않고 있습니다) [4] and, for the first time in six years, opted to designate its northern neighbor as its “main enemy” (주적) [5].

War of Words Amid Ongoing Weapons Tests

Since the start of 2204, the combination of menacing North Korean rhetoric and extensive weapons tests has served as a powerful reminder of the underlying fragility of the East Asian security landscape. In early January, North Korea fired a barrage of artillery rounds―some 200 shells on January 5, followed by approximately 60 shells the following day, and a further 90 shells on January 7―into waters near the disputed Northern Limit Line maritime border, prompting South Korea to respond in kind. A week later (Jan. 14), Pyongyang test-fired a new solid-fuel intermediate-range missile whose purported range extends as far as U.S. strategic bases on Guam. A day later, in an address to the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Jong-un signaled the abandonment of peaceful reunification efforts―“In my opinion, we can specify in our constitution the issue of completely occupying, subjugating and reclaiming the ROK and annex it as a part of the territory of our Republic in case of a war breaks out on the Korean peninsula,” he said―and called for the rewriting of the North’s constitution to identify South Korea as its “primary foe and invariable principal enemy” [6].

Claiming to have tested a nuclear-capable underwater attack drone on January 19, North Korea subsequently test-fired new nuclear-capable submarine-launched Pulhwasal-3-31 (불 화살-3-31; “Fire Arrow-3-31”) cruise missiles on January 24 and 28, and several Hwasal-2 (화살-2; “Arrow-2”) cruise missiles on January 30. The following day, South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol slammed the North Korean regime as an “irrational group in the world that has legislated the preemptive use of nuclear weapons” (전 세계에서 유일하게 핵 선제 사용을 법제화한 비이성적 집단) [7]. Meanwhile, Pyongyang continued to step up weapons tests, launching an unspecified number of cruise missiles from a location on the country’s West coast on February 2 and claimed to have conducted a “cruise missile super-large combat power test” (순항미사일 초대형 전투부 위력 시험) [8].

The war of words between North and South Korea, meanwhile, escalated even further on February 5 when North Korea denounced recent remarks by South Korean Defense Minister Shin won-sik for the Republic of Korea (ROK) Air Force to “be at the vanguard of removing the enemy’s leadership at the earliest possible time and put an end to the regime” as “slander” and a “catalyst” for a physical conflict [9]. Adding more fuel to the geopolitical tensions on the Korean Peninsula was Kim Jong-un’s decision to break in a high-profile and consequential way from both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s unification policies by ordering the demolition of the Arch of Reunification. Addressing a Supreme People’s Assembly session, Kim ominously declared that “[T]he very concepts of ‘unification’, ‘reconciliation’, and ‘compatriots’ must be completely eliminated from the national history of the Republic” (공화국 민족역사에서 ‘통일’, ‘화해’, ‘동족’이라는 개념 자체를 완전히 제거해버려야 한다) [10]. This was further underscored by his stated intention to “thoroughly block all the channels of north-south communication along the border, including physically and completely cutting off the railway tracks on our side, which existed as a symbol of north-south exchange and cooperation, to an irretrievable level” [11].

Clamoring for Attention?

Given Kim Jong-un’s call to step up war preparations and his regime’s seemingly unrelenting weapons tests, it is certainly hard to dismiss outright the possibility of rising tensions spilling over into open conflict. In a recent article, Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies concluded that “Kim Jong Un has made a strategic decision to go to war.” Moreover, they challenged the belief that the threat of massive retaliation in the event of North Korean aggression is enough to keep a fragile peace in Northeast Asia, stating that “[I]f this is what policymakers are thinking, it is the result of a fundamental misreading of Kim’s view of history and a grievous failure of imagination that could be leading (on both Kim’s and Washington’s parts) to a disaster” [12].

However, simply extrapolating from North Korean pronouncements, including Kim Jong-un’s seemingly ominous comment at a year-end speech in December 2023 that “war can break out on the Korean Peninsula at any time” (한반도에서 언제든지 전쟁이 터질 수 있다는 것을) [13] is an exercise in simplicity given the obvious lack of the requisite analytical rigor and contextual grounding.

The possibility of conflict notwithstanding, the probability of such a scenario is likely much lower than alarmist prognostications suggest. A closer analysis suggests that Kim’s recent moves are not so much driven by clear military logic as they are by political logic. In a speech at the Kim Il-sung Centennial Celebration on 15 April 2012, Kim Jong-un temporarily sounded like a North Korean Deng Xiaoping, stressing at the time that “[I]t is our party’s resolute determination to let our people who are the best in the world — our people who have overcome all obstacles and ordeals to uphold the party faithfully — not tighten their belts again and enjoy the wealth and prosperity of socialism as much as they like. We must well grow the valuable seeds, which the great Comrade Kim Jong Il sowed to build an economically powerful state and improve the people’s livelihood, and lead them to bloom as a glorious reality” [14]. Nearly 12 years later, his economic message is much more somber. On January 25, according to North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun, Kim acknowledged that “failure to satisfactorily provide the people in local areas with basic living necessities” presents “a serious political issue” [15]. It is thus no coincidence that Kim had put forward a new development policy – “20×10 local development policy” (지방발전 20×10 정책) at the 10th session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly meeting on January 15. By the end of January, the newly constituted 20×10 Non-Standing Central Promotion Committee for Local Development had instructed North Pyongan Province to establish “joint ventures with foreign entities that focus on production” [16]. In comparing this development with the growing tensions on the Korean peninsula, and considering the longstanding history of nuclear blackmail and periodic saber-rattling by the North Korean regime, it is becoming more apparent that Kim is effectively playing a two-level game, hoping to garner renewed international attention (considering upcoming legislative elections in South Korea and a presidential election in the U.S), while also distracting the North Korean population from domestic socio-economic pressures with a rallying-around-the-flag effort by trying to blame the country’s domestic problems on external enemies―notably the actions and policies of South Korea and the United States.

The Broader Geopolitical Perspective

Given the evolving security landscape in Northeast Asia―including the nascent U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea Trilateral Partnership, the renewed military cooperation between North Korea and Russia―the ongoing war in Ukraine, and the volatile situation in the Middle East, it is unquestionably prudent to pay closer attention to North Korea’s recent actions and statements. It is not out of the realm of possibility that North Korea might perceive the current state of global affairs as an opportune moment to ratchet up tensions at a time when the U.S. is keeping an eye (at least for the moment still) on the war in Ukraine, appears to be drawn (once again) into the maelstrom of instability in the Middle East, and is trying to maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait (especially after the election of the Democratic Progressive Party’s Lai Ching-te) and the South China Sea (where rising tensions between China and the Philippines could see the U.S. get dragged into a conflict with China as a result of the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty).

At the same time, however, Pyongyang’s aggressive posturing might also put a renewed strain on relations with Beijing. Between the 2000s and mid-2010s, the China-North Korea relationship began to evolve from one traditionally “as close as lips and teeth” (唇亡齿寒) to one best described as “allies at arm’s length” [17]. In the aftermath of Pyongyang’s third nuclear test on 12 February 2013, and China having signed on to U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea, the regime resorted to once again describing China as a “turncoat and our enemy”[18].

Yet, if domestic priorities continue to “greatly influence its foreign policy toward China, more so than external pressures and direct diplomatic interactions” [19], the highly asymmetric economic relationship will see China retain significant leverage over North Korea. According to data released by the General Administration of Customs of the People’s Republic of China (GACC) on 18 January 2024, China-North Korea trade rose 137 percent year-on-year to US$2.3 billion, up from US$1 billion in 2022 [20]. In an exchange of New Year congratulatory messages on 1 January 2024, China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un declared 2024 as the “China-North Korea Friendship Year” (中朝友好年) [21]. Meanwhile, North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric and continued weapons tests are unlikely to be well received by Beijing at a time of concerted efforts to improve ties with the United States. Moreover, the deepening relationship between Pyongyang and Moscow is undoubtedly prompting concerns about China’s sustained influence and leverage over North Korea at a time when the latter’s actions and rhetoric are increasingly running counter to China’s national strategic interest.

Opportunity Amid Crisis

The unpredictability, fear, and uncertainty of renewed tensions on the Korean peninsula undeniably call for a multilateral commitment to comprehensive crisis management and de-escalation efforts. On January 17, Tae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea in 2016 and is currently serving in South Korea’s National Assembly, dismissed the scenario of large-scale North Korea’s political and/or military provocations leading to renewed conflict, noting, “It is inconsistent for North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to sell his weapons to another country while saying he is preparing for war” (북한 김정은이 전쟁을 준비한다면서 자기네 무기를 남의 나라에 파는 것은 앞뒤가 맞지 않는다) and that “[T]here is no need to be anxious about Kim Jong-un’s bravado or blackmail” (김정은의 허세나 공갈에 불안해할 필요가 없다) [22]. At the same time, however, it is unwise to simply brush off North Korea’s latest rhetorical broadsides and military posturing as déjà vu all over again. Not only does such an attitude run the risk of analytical complacency, but it could also unexpectedly lead to unexpected and, potentially consequential miscalculations. Better than to give due attention to the unfolding events, all the while ensuring that any reactions to North Korean posturing will be measured and carried out with a clear understanding of the inherent dangers and signaling to avoid fueling miscalculations and misinterpretation that could inadvertently lead to open confrontation.

The old wisdom that every crisis also presents great opportunity holds relevance for the current situation on the Korean peninsula―and, by extension, to the broader regional security environment in East Asia. Indeed, the regional stakeholders should take advantage of the current crisis to identify new opportunities for constructive engagement and crisis de-escalation, above and beyond carrot-and-stick diplomatic initiatives, or the “strategic patience“ and “maximum pressure” policies pursued by the Obama and Trump administrations, respectively. It will require a concerted effort in regional coordination and cooperation. From the perspective of great-power rivalry, Kim Jong-un might just have presented China and the United States with a unique opportunity to begin the process of re-setting their bilateral relationship and to commit to a confidence-building mechanism that could extend beyond the North Korean crisis to help defuse tensions, or at least maintain the status quo, in other regional hotspots, notably Taiwan and the South China Sea. Thus, if approached in a level-headed, objective, and constructive manner, the current tensions on the Korean peninsula may well present a unique opportunity, on bilateral and multilateral levels, to institutionalize and strengthen regional cooperation and coordination efforts to cope with potential conflict by peaceful means and thus ensure the extension of the “Long Peace” in East Asia.

REFERENCES

[1]. Ronald Reagan. “Address at Commencement Exercises at Eureka College, Eureka, Illinois.” 9 May 1982, https://www.reaganfoundation.org/media/128700/eureka.pdf.

[2]. On the notion of “long peace” in Asia, see: Stein Tønnesson, “The East Asian Peace,” in The SAGE Handbook of Asian Foreign Policy, ed. Takashi Inoguchi (London: Sage Publications, 2019): 1097-1117; Kevin Rudd, “Preserving Asia’s Long Peace,” Horizons: Journal of International Relations and Sustainable Development 10 (2018): 104-121; Timo Kivimäki, The Long Peace of East Asia. New York: Routledge, 2016; and Stein Tønnesson, “The East Asian Peace: How did It happen? How deep is it?, ” Global Asia 10, no. 4 (2015): 8-9; and Mikael Weissmann, The East Asian Peace: Conflict Prevention and Informal Peacebuilding (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[3]. 2022 Defense White Paper, https://www.korea.kr/archive/expDocView.do?docId=40357, p. 23.

[4]. Ibid, p. 2.

[5]. “6년 만에 ‘주적’ 넣은 국방백서” (National Defense White paper containing ‘main enemy’ for the first time in 6 years). JoongAng Ilbo, 7 March 2023, https://www.joongang.co.kr/article/25145202#home.

[6]. Soo-Yeon Kim, “N.K. leader calls for defining S. Korea as ‘invariable principal enemy’ in constitution.” Yonhap News, 16 January 2024, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20240116000653315.

[7] “北, 무인기 침투·가짜뉴스로 총선 개입 도발할 것” (North Korea will provoke interference in the general election with drone infiltration and fake news). Chosun Ilbo, 1 February 2024, https://www.chosun.com/politics/blue_house/2024/02/01/QJJ7Y4EQI5AONE6H6VVKERKJVQ/.

[8]. “N. Korea “Conducted cruise missile super-large combat unit power test yesterday”.” Chosun Ilbo, 3 February 2024, https://www.chosun.com/politics/north_korea/2024/02/03/EP33ZXKH35GCVLGDQJNEZSIH3A/.

[9]. “N. Korea slams Seoul defense chief’s anti-Pyongyang warning as ‘catalyst’ for clash.” The Korea Times, 5 February 2024, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2024/02/103_368231.html

[10]. “김정은 “통일 개념 자체를 제거” 지시에…北 ‘조국통일 3대헌장 기념탑’ 철거” (Kim Jong-un’s instructions to “eliminate the concept of unification itself”… North Korea demolishes ‘National Unification Three Charters Monument). JoongAng Ilbo, 24 January 2024, https://www.joongang.co.kr/article/25224103#home.

[11]. Colin Zwirko, “North Korea demolishes symbolic unification arch, satellite imagery suggests.” NK News, 23 January 2024, https://www.nknews.org/2024/01/north-korea-demolishes-symbolic-unification-arch-satellite-imagery-suggests/.

[12]. Robert L. Carlin and Siegfried S. Hecker, “Is Kim Jong Un preparing for war?” 38 North, 11 January 2024. https://www.38north.org/2024/01/is-kim-jong-un-preparing-for-war/.

[13]. “김정은 “남조선 전 영토 평정”…핵 동원 ‘대사변 준비’ 엄포” (Kim Jong-un “pacifies the entire territory of South Korea”…Threats of nuclear mobilization and ‘preparation for a major catastrophe’), 31 December 2023, https://m.khan.co.kr/politics/north-korea/article/202312312002005.

[14]. Quoted in: Francis Schortgen, “The Political logic of economic backwardness in North Korea.” North Korean Review 13, no. 2 (2017): 54. For a complete (unofficial) transcript of the speech, go to https://www.ncnk.org/sites/default/files/content/resources/publications/KJU%204-15-12%20Speech.pdf.

[15]. “Kim Jong-un admits “terrible situation” in rural areas, pushes for regional development,” Hankyoeh, 26 January 2024, https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_northkorea/1126098.

[16]. Jeong Tae Joo, “N. Pyongan Province ordered to establish joint ventures with foreign entities.” Daily NK, 5 February 2024, https://www.dailynk.com/english/north-pyongan-province-ordered-establish-joint-ventures-foreign-entities/.

[17]. Andrew Scobell, China and North Korea: From Comrades-in-Arms to Allies at Arm’s Length (U.S. Army War College: Strategic Studies Institute, March 2004), https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GOVPUB-D101-PURL-LPS47736/pdf/GOVPUB-D101-PURL-LPS47736.pdf.

[18]. Zachary Keck. “North Korea: China is a ‘turncoat and our enemy’.” The Diplomat, 25 March 2014. https://thediplomat.com/2014/03/north-korea-china-is-a-turncoat-and-our-enemy/.

[19]. Suk-hoon Hong. “What does North Korea want from China? Understanding Pyongyang’s policy priorities towards Beijing.” The Korean Journal of International Studies 12, no. 1 (2014): 277.

[20] “China’s customs agency: N. Korea-Chia trade surged 137% in 2023,” 18 January 2024, https://world.kbs.co.kr/service/news_view.htm?lang=e&Seq_Code=183176

[21]. Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “中朝两党两国最高领导人互致新年贺电宣布启动“中朝友好年” (The top leaders of the two parties and countries of China and North Korea exchanged New Year congratulatory messages and announced the launch of the “China-North Korea Friendship Year”). 1 January 2024. https://www.mfa.gov.cn/zyxw/202401/t20240101_11215629.shtml.

[22]. “태영호 ‘러에 무기 팔며 전쟁한다고? 김정은 허세, 불안해할 필요 없다’.” Chosun Ilbo, 18 January 2024. https://www.chosun.com/politics/2024/01/18/BXLXUC7RQND6FPYNRYOKM3RC5Q/

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