By Ramon Pacheco Pardo
Tensions in the Korean Peninsula have been rising in recent weeks. On January 16th, Kim Jong-un announced that reunification was no longer a North Korean goal and that South Korea now was the North’s ‘invariable principal enemy’. Kim also shut down the agencies dealing with inter-Korean relations, and shortly afterwards North Korea reportedly demolished the Arch of Reunification symbolising the goal of reconciliation and eventual reunification. Kim also declared that North Korea ‘did not want war but […] also [has] no intention of avoiding it’. At the same time, Pyongyang has continued with its regular missile tests, including alleged submarine-launched cruised missiles. The Kim regime has also claimed to have tested an underwater nuclear-capable drone. And North Korea also fired artillery rounds near the de facto inter-Korean border line off the West coast of the Korean Peninsula. Yoon Suk-yeol, meanwhile, has vowed that South Korea will respond to any attack by North Korea, while South Korea and the United States have conducted multiple joint maritime, air, land and cyber exercises bilaterally and also trilaterally together with Japan. It should also be noted that communication between the two Koreas and the United States and North Korea remains paused, further heightening tensions, with Pyongyang claiming that it has no interest in dialogue with either Seoul or Washington.
Why is North Korea ramping up tensions in the Korean Peninsula?
It is fair to say that North Korea has been recalibrating its approach towards South Korea and the United States since the failure of the February 2019 Hanoi summit between Donald Trump and Kim. Since then, Pyongyang has been hurling insults at South Korea, testing different types of missiles and also flirting with the idea of conducting a seventh nuclear test. This suggests that Kim doesn’t think that South Korea can help it reach a deal with the United States, and also that it sees little scope for an agreement with Washington to normalise relations or to be accepted as a nuclear power. North Korea also was the first country in the world to close its borders at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, even before China, and only recently has started to reopen them. This further exacerbated North Korea’s isolation from the outside world, arguably making it easier for Kim to take the decision not to engage with either South Korea or the United States. In this context, it is likely that North Korea will continue its weapons testing and launch programme at least until the November US election, and then decide whether it should seek a return to dialogue with the United States and South Korea or not.
In addition, North Korea seems to have taken the strategic decision to renew ties with China and, especially, Russia as a way to deter what it sees as the threat coming from the United States and South Korea. In September of last year, Kim visited Russia and met with Vladimir Putin. There are multiple reports that North Korea has been providing missiles and artillery shells to Russia as Moscow continues to wage its war against Ukraine. And Foreign ministers Sergey Lavrov and Choe Son-hui have exchanged visits to each other’s country. Meanwhile, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong led a Chinese delegation to Pyongyang last week. Better relations with Russia and China allow North Korea to conduct missile tests without the risk of new UN sanctions, provides the Kim regime with diplomatic cover in the UN and allows Pyongyang to receive economic, energy and technological transfers from Moscow and Beijing.
It should also be noted that Kim has repeatedly emphasised that North Korea will continue to develop it missile and nuclear weapons programmes, as well as developing other capabilities such as spy satellites or drones. Thus, North Korea’s weapons testing and launch programme should not be seen as a way to catch the attention of the United States and South Korea primarily, or as a way to bring them to the negotiation table. While Kim could decide at any point to reverse its decision to (theoretically) not seek reconciliation and reunification with South Korea and/or to normalise relations with the United States, the development of its military capabilities seems to be driven primarily by security concerns rather than as a bargaining chip.
How may inter-Korean relations and US-North Korea relations evolve in the short term?
It is highly likely that inter-Korean relations will continue to deteriorate in the coming months. While North Korea’s behaviour is at best a distant secondary factor in South Korean voters’ decision to vote for one party or another, South Korea will hold National Assembly elections on April 10th, 2024. From a North Korean perspective, it does not make sense to modify its behaviour before these elections. Arguably more important, North Korea probably sees no reason to recalibrate its current approach towards South Korea until the result of the upcoming US presidential election is clear. North Korea will probably then rethink its approach towards South Korea depending on whether Biden or Trump wins the election, since any potential resumption of the US-North Korea dialogue would need to come together with an inter-Korean rapprochement. With regards to Seoul, Yoon’s actions show that inter-Korean relations are not a top priority for his government. South Korea will continue to boost its military capabilities, strengthen security ties with the United States and enhance trilateral cooperation with Washington and Tokyo. Yet, if the opportunity to resume the inter-Korean dialogue arises, Yoon has indicated that he is not opposed to the idea. This is generally the case with all South Korean presidents.
As for US-North Korea relations, it is unlikely that there will be any breakthrough before the November presidential election. The US government has been discussing North Korea with friends such as South Korea and Japan and foes such as China. But it is not a priority of the Biden administration. Were Biden to be re-elected, he may try to see if it is possible to use diplomacy to tone down US-North Korea and inter-Korean tensions. After all, history tells us that all US presidents dating back to Bill Clinton have engaged in diplomatic exchanges with North Korea at some point. Were Trump to win the election, he could be tempted to resume his dialogue with Kim. After all, Trump has claimed that he helped reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula. And Kim may be willing to test whether it is possible to reach a deal with Trump whereby Pyongyang would pause its missile tests in exchange for some sanctions relief. Yet, making a prediction about how US-North Korea relations could evolve under Trump is difficult.
In any case, the possibility of a full-blown war in the Korean Peninsula in the short-term is remote. After all, tensions in the Korean Peninsula flared up in 2010, 2015 or 2017, to name three recent examples, to the same or even a higher degree than currently. In 2010, as a case in point, North Korea sank the ROK Cheonan and shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island. In both cases, Pyongyang deliberately killed South Korean nationals. Yet, tensions did not escalate any further. Since Kim’s main goal is survival and he seems to be aware that a full-blown war in the Korean Peninsula would result in the end of his regime, he is unlikely to escalate tensions to the extent that they would trigger a military conflict.