ANALYSIS: The Escalating Global Tensions Under Kim Jong Un’s Leadership

North Korea recently tested several new strategic cruise missiles, rumored to be capable of carrying tactical nuclear warheads.

News Analysis

In recent months, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has engaged in a series of actions that mark a significant departure from previous policies and rhetoric. These actions include an increase in missile tests, a stark redefinition of South Korea as an adversary, and symbolic gestures such as the proposed removal of language promoting “peaceful reunification” and “national grand unity” from the constitution.

Notably, the dismantling of the “Arch of Reunification,” a symbol of inter-Korean unity, underscores a clear pivot away from the conciliatory legacy of his father. The motivations behind Kim’s behavior are subject to various interpretations, ranging from attempts to escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula and efforts aimed at undermining South Korea’s stability, to strategies designed to consolidate his family’s rule by diverting attention from domestic challenges.

The timeline of these developments traces back to November of last year, with North Korea’s launch of a reconnaissance satellite, provoking heightened alertness among South Korea, the United States, Japan, and others. In retaliation, South Korea suspended parts of the “September 19 Military Agreement,” a 2018 pact aimed at reducing military tensions between the two nations. North Korea, in turn, declared the nullification of several inter-Korean agreements.

The narrative continued into December, with the 9th Plenary Meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, where Kim branded South Korea the “most hostile country.” This rhetoric was further amplified in the new year when, during a military factory inspection, Kim explicitly labeled South Korea as the “primary enemy.”

In early January, North Korea intensified its provocations by launching over 60 artillery shells into a maritime buffer zone, followed by additional bombardments. These actions drew sharp criticism from the South Korean joint chiefs of staff, who denounced the artillery strikes as a direct threat to peace and stability in the region.

Mid-January saw further escalations with Kim’s proposal at the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly to demolish the “Arch of Reunification” and eliminate from the constitution any language related to reunification and reconciliation, effectively disbanding institutions aimed at fostering peaceful relations with South Korea.

On Jan. 24, North Korea tested several new strategic cruise missiles, rumored to be capable of carrying tactical nuclear warheads, in the Yellow Sea. This test, notably targeting the Yellow Sea instead of the Sea of Japan, occurred on the eve of a Chinese diplomatic visit to Pyongyang, leading to speculation about North Korea’s intentions towards China. The United States also increased its military activity in the region during this period by deploying three Navy aircraft carriers near the Korean Peninsula. The move was interpreted as a deterrent against both North Korea and China, given recent tensions.

In response to these developments, John Kirby, the Strategic Communications Coordinator of the U.S. National Security Council, confirmed at a press conference that the United States is vigilantly monitoring North Korea’s military activities, highlighting the international concern over Kim’s recent provocations.

National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House, on Jan. 29, 2024. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)
National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House, on Jan. 29, 2024. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)

US Issues Warning of War

Two prominent analysts in the United States raised alarms over North Korea’s recent activities. On Jan. 11, Robert Carlin, a seasoned former CIA analyst, and Siegfried Hecher, a noted nuclear scientist, expressed grave concerns on the news analysis platform 38 North, suggesting that Kim might be contemplating a war strategy reminiscent of his grandfather’s actions in 1950.

“We believe that, like his grandfather in 1950, Kim Jong Un has made a strategic decision to go to war,” stated the beginning of the article. They argue that Kim has decisively shifted away from any aspirations of reconciliation and reunification with South Korea, framing the North and South as belligerent states.

On Jan. 25, U.S. government officials, requesting anonymity, told the media that North Korea could launch a deadly attack on South Korea within months. They pointed out that Kim’s recent comments and continuous missile launches have gone beyond the previous pattern of pressuring South Korea. However, they added that there are currently no signs that a full-scale war is imminent.

The officials cited the example of the 2010 Yeonpyeong bombardment. Despite South Korea’s retaliation, the situation was resolved relatively quickly. Kim might consider that even if an attack is launched, there is still a possibility of controlling the escalation of tensions. One of them suggested that North Korea’s supply of artillery and missiles to Russia could indicate a lack of long-term war planning.

The 2010 Yeonpyeong bombardment was a North Korean artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea, on November 23, 2010. It resulted in the deaths of four South Koreans, including two civilians, and caused significant damage to the island’s infrastructure. It marked one of the most serious escalations of tensions on the Korean Peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

On the same day, Jon Finer, the deputy national security advisor in the Biden administration, speaking at an Asia Society forum in Washington, characterized North Korea as having “chosen to continue going down a very negative path.”

Echoing this sentiment, Daniel R. Russel, a former assistant secretary of state and current vice president of the Asia Society, posited that Kim’s ambitions might exceed the scope of the 2010 incident, urging preparedness for a potentially startling military provocation. “We should be preparing for the prospect of Kim doing a shocking kinetic action,” he said.

The consensus in U.S. political circles, interpreting Kim’s address at the Supreme People’s Assembly on Jan. 15, is that it signals a prelude to military aggression.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers a speech in Pyongyang, North Korea, between Dec. 26, 2023 and Dec. 30, 2023. (KCNA/Korea News Service via AP)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers a speech in Pyongyang, North Korea, between Dec. 26, 2023 and Dec. 30, 2023. (KCNA/Korea News Service via AP)

Opposing View: Kim Unlikely to Wage War

Despite the heightened tensions, some experts believe that North Korea’s actions are not aimed at starting a war.

“Risking his entire regime on a potentially cataclysmic conflict is not on-brand for the North Koreans. They have proven to be ruthlessly Machiavellian,” said Christopher Green, a North Korean affairs analyst at the Crisis Group, a think tank based in the Netherlands.

Mr. Green also noted that North Korea often postures aggressively to compel the West into dialogue, albeit against a backdrop of internal instability and political pressures that could render the regime unpredictably hazardous.

An editorial by the South Korean publication Dong-a Ilbo on Jan. 17 suggested that Kim’s provocations might be driven by the strategic advantages afforded by his nuclear arsenal and the benefits gleaned from arms dealings with Russia.

The piece further speculated that the timing, coinciding with forthcoming parliamentary elections in South Korea and the U.S. presidential election, could be opportunistically chosen to influence international dynamics. However, at its core, the editorial suggests Kim’s actions aim to deflect domestic discontent onto foreign adversaries.

Echoing a similar sentiment, Zhang Tianliang, an associate professor at Feitian University and a current affairs commentator, questions the likelihood of Kim risking his regime’s survival through warfare.

He highlights that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not wish to lose North Korea as a controllable proxy. He cites the “Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance,” which mandates CCP assistance to North Korea in times of conflict. Yet, he notes the CCP’s current aversion to war, as evidenced by internal military purges that indicate a lack of preparedness for conflict.

Independent writer Zhuge Mingyang offers a nuanced view, suggesting that Kim’s rhetoric, while bellicose, primarily serves to consolidate his power internally rather than to signal an impending war.

Mr. Zhuge believes that Kim has established an explicit condition that he will not initiate war unilaterally unless South Korea invades North Korea. This strategy, coupled with the abandonment of the reunification agenda, effectively strips North Korea of any justification for initiating conflict, framing its aggressive stance as more of a strategic bluff than a genuine prelude to war.

This collective skepticism among experts highlights a complex interplay of strategic posturing, domestic pressures, and international diplomacy, suggesting that while North Korea’s actions raise alarms, the actual intent and likelihood of war remain subjects of debate.

A photo provided by the North Korean regime shows what it says is a test of a new solid-fuel intermediate-range missile in North Korea, on Jan. 14, 2024. (KCNA/Korea News Service via AP)
A photo provided by the North Korean regime shows what it says is a test of a new solid-fuel intermediate-range missile in North Korea, on Jan. 14, 2024. (KCNA/Korea News Service via AP)

Strategic Objectives

Kim Taewoo, former president of the Korea Institute for National Unification and a military studies professor at Kyung Hee University, told The Epoch Times on Jan. 29 that Kim’s actions likely serve three purposes: to alleviate internal pressures, to disrupt the international community, and to create division within South Korea.

“North Korea is spending its limited resources on weapons development, causing immense suffering among its people. Recently, the North Korean economy has become more strained and troubled, with resources outside the capital Pyongyang becoming even scarcer. Kim Jong Un’s series of abnormal actions are aimed at stopping internal dissatisfaction and diverting attention,” Mr. Kim elaborated.

During the 19th expanded political bureau meeting and the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, held not in Pyongyang but in Myohyangsan, Kim candidly acknowledged the failure of the country’s state distribution system. This unusual admission and the change in meeting location hint at rising dissatisfaction in rural North Korea, possibly threatening the regime’s stability.

The Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s state newspaper, extensively covered Kim’s speech on Jan. 25, where he recognized the “dire situation” in most North Korean regions and emphasized “the inability to provide basic food and necessities to rural areas is a serious political issue that the party and government cannot ignore.” This public acknowledgment marks a first for Kim, highlighting the “severe inequality and huge gap” between urban and rural areas.

As of late January, the impact of these challenges is reflected in soaring grain prices, with a significant increase in markets across North Korea, despite relatively stable prices in Pyongyang. North Korea’s chronic food insecurity has been further aggravated during the pandemic.

On the international front, North Korea’s reliance on China, alongside its relations with Russia and Syria, underscores its limited global alliances. Despite the Biden administration’s openness to dialogue with North Korea without preconditions, Pyongyang remains wary of U.S. intentions regarding its nuclear program, leading to a standoffish posture towards diplomatic engagements.

Mr. Kim suggests that the global landscape of conflicts and potential new conflict zones in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Taiwan Strait as well as the “New Cold War” dynamics, involving China and Russia, presents Kim with a perceived opportunity to escalate provocations against South Korea. By designating South Korea as the principal adversary and eliminating terms related to reunification and reconciliation, Kim aims to legitimize the nuclear threat against the South.

The backdrop of significant global and regional elections, including the critical South Korean parliamentary election in April, provides a strategic context for North Korea’s actions. With the potential to influence South Korea’s political landscape, Kim’s provocations could exacerbate divisions within South Korea, impacting the ruling party’s standing and President Yoon Suk Yeol’s policy agenda, particularly regarding North Korea.

Mr. Kim underscores that one of the purposes of Kim’s series of abnormal actions is “to disrupt the South Korean parliamentary elections, divide South Korea, and create divisions. Whenever North Korea increases threats against South Korea, the left and right wings in South Korea become more opposed and argumentative on North Korean issues. Thus, one of the best ways to respond to North Korean provocations is for South Korea to unite internally.”

This analysis points to a calculated strategy by Kim, leveraging international and domestic tensions to achieve a multiplicity of objectives amidst the current geopolitical climate.

In this pool photo distributed by Sputnik agency, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un visit the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur region, on Sept. 13, 2023. (Vladimir Smirnov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
In this pool photo distributed by Sputnik agency, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un visit the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur region, on Sept. 13, 2023. (Vladimir Smirnov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Expert: Kim Seeks to Shed Political Burden

The pursuit of Korean reunification has been a cornerstone of the political ideology passed down from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il. This legacy was symbolized by the “Arch of Reunification,” a monument established at the entrance of the “Reunification Highway” near the 38th parallel, constructed under Kim Jong Il’s orders in 2000. Embodying the “Three Principles for National Reunification,” this monument has stood as a testament to the Kim dynasty’s professed commitment to the reunification of the Korean Peninsula under peaceful and united terms.

The “Three Principles for National Reunification” encompass charters and plans laid out over the years, including the 1972 “South-North Joint Statement,” the 1980 proposal for a federative republic, and the 1993 “Ten-Point Program Programme for Reunification.” These charters, initiated by Kim Il Sung and further promoted by Kim Jong Il, have historically framed the North’s stance on reunification.

However, under Kim’s regime, this longstanding political ambition has been conspicuously dismantled, as evidenced by the recent demolition of the “Arch of Reunification,” confirmed by satellite imagery and South Korea’s Ministry of Unification. This act not only signifies a physical removal of a reunification symbol but also reflects a significant ideological shift within North Korea’s approach to its southern neighbor.

Tang Jingyuan, a political analyst and host of Foresight, a current affairs channel, told The Epoch Times that Kim’s drastic step to demolish this symbol of reunification underscores the burdensome nature of this goal. He argues that the dream of reunification, while perpetuated through generations, has become untenable due to the vast disparities in political ideologies, social structures, and economic conditions between the two Koreas.

“Reunification is nothing but a pipe dream for Kim Jong Un. To pursue reunification, increased exchanges [between the two nations] in many areas would be necessary, which could lead to pressure within the system for change. What he fears most is exposing North Koreans to the concept of ‘democracy and freedom.’ Not long ago, two North Korean teenagers were sentenced to severe penalties simply for secretly watching South Korean dramas, proving Kim Jong Un’s fear of the impact of South Korea’s soft power on North Korea,” he said.

Mr. Tang suggests that internal and external pressures have compelled Kim to forsake the reunification objective to safeguard his regime. Kim’s apprehension regarding the influence of South Korean culture and values potentially destabilizing his grip on power is a driving force behind this strategic pivot.

“By abandoning the reunification principle and severing all forms of exchange with South Korea, Kim aims to shield his populace from the democratic and affluent lifestyle of the South, thereby maintaining the regime’s ideological purity and control,” Mr. Tang added.

He also suggests that Kim seeks to assert his autonomy in policy-making, signaling a readiness to engage directly with international actors, including the United States, independent of South Korean or Chinese mediation.

Mr. Tang concludes that while Kim’s actions may escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula, they do not necessarily imply an increased likelihood of war. In the absence of reunification as a pretext, any aggressive move by North Korea would be deemed outright aggression, suggesting that, paradoxically, the risk of conflict might be reduced by these developments.

Xin Ning contributed to this report.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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