North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in January declared peaceful unification with South Korea is no longer possible. In a speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s parliament, Kim said North Korea’s constitution should be amended to show that South Korea is a “primary foe and invariable principal enemy.”

Soldiers are seen near the military demarcation line at Panmunjom, in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, Feb. 7, 2023. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)
Soldiers are seen near the military demarcation line at Panmunjom, in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, Feb. 7, 2023. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

Days later, North Korea demolished a monument that symbolized hope for reconciliation with South Korea. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol responded to Kim’s remarks stating that if the North carried out a provocation, South Korea “will retaliate multiple times stronger.”

USIP’s Bong-geun Jun discusses the implications of Kim’s surprising renunciation of Pyongyang’s policy of seeking peaceful unification with South Korea.

Why did Kim Jong Un suddenly renounce North Korea’s traditional policy of seeking peaceful unification with South Korea?

Since the Kim Il Sung era, North Korea had maintained a one-nation, one-state unification policy and unification offensive toward South Korea. Therefore, Kim Jong Un’s recent renunciation of peaceful national unification bewildered most North Korea watchers. It is seen as an acknowledgment of the uncomfortable reality that North Korea has lost the ”unification competition” with South Korea and is searching for a new survival strategy.

Historically, unification is possible only when the stronger country absorbs the weaker one militarily or peacefully. Today, South Korea is a leading middle power, while North Korea is an isolated rogue state. South Korea’s population is twice that of North Korea’s, and its economy is 50 to 60 times that of North Korea’s. It is natural that North Korea, suffering from chronic economic and systemic crises, is concerned about potential unification by absorption. Therefore, North Korea’s best survival strategy would be a complete political and legal break from South Korea.

Is Kim preparing to attack South Korea and pursue unification by force, including using nuclear weapon?

Recently, North Korea raised military tensions with South Korea to an unprecedentedly high level. At the Korean Workers’ Party plenum at the end of last year, Kim Jong Un declared South Korea to be “the most hostile state” and inter-Korean relations “a warring belligerent relationship,” and ordered North Korea’s army to “prepare a great event to conquer the territory of South Korea.”

The nuclear-armed North Korea appears confident that it can overwhelm the nonnuclear South Korea and deter U.S. military intervention. However, it is unlikely that North Korea will start a premeditated, all-out war against the South for the time being, since a war would be suicidal and bring about the end of its regime. Moreover, North Korea’s economy cannot afford to sustain an all-out war, and neither China nor Russia would support a North Korea-initiated war. On the other hand, a limited military attack by the North can happen anytime near the demarcation line. An accidental military collision and escalation can also occur anytime due to the unusually high level of military preparedness and tensions between the two Koreas as well as their preemptive doctrines.

What will South Korea's response be to Kim’s declaration? Do most South Koreans prefer to live as separate states rather than a unified state?   

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol criticized Kim Jong Un’s renunciation of unification as “anti-nationalistic.” He also added that North Korea’s military attacks would be countered with immediate and multiplied military retaliation. The South Korean government maintains its traditional national unification policy of one nation, one state, one government and one system, and, according to its constitution (Article 4), pursues a “peaceful unification policy based on the basic free and democratic order.”

However, the public has mixed views. According to a recent public poll, the majority of South Koreans (52%) prefer a peacefully coexisting two-state system, while 28% support a unified state. Today, the Korean Peninsula is at a crossroads between a divided-state and a two-state system. Most South Koreans would not accept the “hostile two-state system” proposed by Kim Jong Un. At the same time, they do not want to continue the divided system of the past 75 years, where war and nuclear crises recur endlessly. Exploring a peaceful two-state system may be a path out of this conundrum.

What will Kim’s next moves be? Would those be more nuclear and missile tests, militarily aggressive moves against the South, or diplomatic gestures toward the United States? 

North Korea is expected to enhance its nuclear and missile capabilities as fast as possible so that it can not only overcome the U.S.-South Korea alliance’s defense system but also withstand the alliance’s first or preemptive strikes. Under the current Cold War-like situation, North Korea is almost unimpeded in pursuing its nuclear and missile programs. However, North Korea might refrain from conducting a seventh nuclear test and normal-angle, real-distance intercontinental ballistic missile (ICMB) test for now, since these red line-crossing provocations could result in additional sanctions by the U.N. Security Council, or at least unilateral adverse actions by the United States, South Korea and even China.. To counter U.S.-South Korea-Japan security cooperation, North Korea is also expected to actively engage with Russia and China. However, North Korea-Russia cooperation may be limited to the economy and conventional weapons for the time being. Despite North Korea’s demands and Russia’s hostility toward the United States, Russia is unlikely to transfer nuclear warheads and ICBM technology to North Korea.

How will Kim’s shifts in approach to the United States and South Korea affect the alliance’s policy toward North Korea?

It is unlikely that North Korea’s recent policy shifts will impact the alliance’s approach to North Korea, other than enhanced vigilance for indicators and warnings of near-term aggression. The alliance will continue to apply a pressure-based approach and build up its deterrence capabilities while seeking to compel North Korea to return to the negotiating table on the alliance’s terms, which include putting denuclearization on the agenda and talks starting at the working level. Also, since the leaders of South Korea, the United States and Japan agreed to coordinate and cooperate on overall diplomatic and security policies at Camp David in August 2023, a trilateral consultation would be necessary before any major shifts in alliance policy. On the other hand, the U.S. government has continued to propose dialogue with North Korea without any preconditions. North Korea might approach the United States again. Previously, the South Korean government used to ask for consultation and consent before the United States engaged in a dialogue with North Korea. Therefore, if the U.S.-North Korea dialogue emerges while inter-Korean relations deteriorate, the South Korea-U.S. alliance may become strained.

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