For North Korea, threats and aggressive rhetoric are nothing new.
Even so, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s bellicose statements and policy moves in recent weeks have prompted a flurry of commentary about his intentions – including warnings that he could be preparing for war.
While divining Kim’s next steps is impossible, longtime observers of North Korea have been closely watching his behaviour for clues as to what he might have planned.
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The result has been conflicting – and ultimately speculative – theories about the machinations of power inside one of the world’s most secretive states.
Why are people worried about what Kim might do next?
Kim has taken a number of provocative steps recently that have attracted attention.
Most notably, he announced that peaceful reunification with South Korea was no longer possible – a move some observers see as an unprecedented break with decades of policy advocating the reunion of North and South.
In a speech to North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament last week, Kim said the constitution should be amended to define South Korea as the “primary foe and invariable principal enemy” and that three agencies tasked with promoting inter-Korean reconciliation would be closed.
At a meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party several weeks earlier, Kim said peaceful reunification was impossible as the neighbours had become “two hostile countries” and war could “break out at any time”.
Ruediger Frank, a professor of East Asian economy and society at the University of Vienna, said designating South Korea as a foreign country was “significant” as it theoretically opened the way to either conflict or the normalisation of relations.
“An all-out war against a population that was regarded as ‘family’ was harder to defend ideologically, especially if we consider that North Korean nationalism was ethnic, with heavy racial subtones,” Frank told Al Jazeera.
“Furthermore, the destruction and, in the worst case, nuclear contamination of land that was to be integrated into a unified Korea made little sense. By defining South Korea as just another country, these two barriers are now gone, at least on paper.”
Meanwhile, Pyongyang has carried out numerous weapons tests, including the launches this month of what it described as a solid-fuel missile fitted with a hypersonic warhead and a nuclear-capable underwater attack drone.
Some observers have suggested that Kim’s recent moves differ from the usual bluster emanating from Pyongyang.
In a commentary published by the United States-based 38 North website before Kim’s speech on reunification, two prominent North Korea analysts warned that the situation on the Korean Peninsula was more dangerous than at any point since the lead-up to the 1950-53 Korean War and that Kim had made a “strategic decision to go to war.”
“We do not know when or how Kim plans to pull the trigger, but the danger is already far beyond the routine warnings in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo about Pyongyang’s ‘provocations’,” Robert L Carlin and Siegfried S Hecker wrote in the analysis published on January 11.
Carlin and Hecker said Kim may have decided on a “military solution” after concluding that decades of efforts to normalise relations with the US had been in vain.
Gabriela Bernal, a PhD candidate at the University of North Korean Studies, argued in a South China Morning Post op-ed last week that the chances of conflict were “suddenly much higher” as Kim no longer viewed South Koreans as compatriots.
Others have warned that even if Kim is not preparing for outright war, he could resort to lower-level provocations, such as weapons tests or a limited strike similar to Pyongyang’s shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in 2010, which killed four South Koreans.
Victor Cha, George W Bush’s top adviser on Korean affairs, said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that North Korea was likely to become more belligerent in the year ahead and could do “many things short of war to rattle the cages”.
“If anything, the remarks reinforce the notion that Kim will continue to seek nuclear weapons development and testing as a source of security, survival, and intimidation tool against the region, most proximately South Korea,” Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst of North Korea, told Al Jazeera.
“What’s concerning is the current geopolitical climate, which Kim is fully aware of and likely took into consideration when making this recent policy decision. Perhaps, in assessing his decision, he judged that he had less to lose than gain by abandoning unification and going full-speed towards his goals.”
Haven’t we been here before?
There is considerable disagreement about how much the calculus in Pyongyang has changed – if at all.
Brian R Myers, a professor at South Korea’s Dongseo University and author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters, has argued that there is little reason to believe that a state with a “multi-generational view” of policy has abandoned reunification.
Kim’s apparent dismissal of reunification should instead be seen as an effort to deter the US from considering military action and push South Koreans to support politicians who are more sympathetic to North Korea in upcoming parliamentary elections, Myers wrote on his blog earlier this month.
“North Korea’s safety still derives in large part from the Americans’ belief that an attack on its territory would result in the immediate devastation of Seoul. This belief is naturally undermined by the suspicion that North Korea is too nationalist, too intent on unification, to be serious about wiping out millions of fellow Koreans,” Myers wrote in a blog post published on January 3.
“It’s therefore common for the regime in times of tension to make stern statements – in word or deed – of its readiness to stop at nothing.”
Indeed, Pyongyang has threatened the US, South Korea and Japan on countless occasions over the years, from threatening to carry out “indiscriminate” nuclear strikes to announcing the nullification of the truce that halted fighting in the Korean War.
Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kookmin University, said the international media and general public have “short memories” when it comes to North Korean threats.
“Ten years ago, North Korea said that officially war will start in the next few weeks. The North Korean government approached foreign embassies in Pyongyang, suggesting they evacuate immediately all non-essential personnel. The North Korean media addressed foreigners residing in South Korea, suggesting to them to run away immediately,” Lankov told Al Jazeera.
“A few dozen foreign journalists came to Seoul to report on the coming war in Korea. They were surprised to see that South Koreans did not care at all. They were supping their cappuccinos because they understood that such tidal waves of bellicose rhetoric come from North Korea every three or five years. Back then, it was far more very graphic than now.”
Frank said it was extremely unlikely Kim would go to war against South Korea due to the likelihood Washington would retaliate in defence of its ally.
“It is impossible to look inside the mind of any person, especially a dictator in a remote country. But if we assume that Kim Jong Un is a rational thinker with a sense of reality, then I do not see a single reason why the longstanding arguments against the likeliness of North Korea attacking South Korea should not be valid any more,” Frank said.
“Even readying the North Korean military for such a step would take time. But first and foremost, Kim Jong Un’s speeches did not change the US commitment to defending South Korea, which – as North Korean officials have acknowledged repeatedly in informal conversations – would almost certainly result in the destruction of North Korea.”
So what does it all mean?
The simple answer is that it is impossible to know for sure.
Perhaps more than any other country, North Korea defies authoritative analysis.
North Korea has no independent media and foreign journalists are assigned government minders on the rare occasions they are invited into the country.
North Korean citizens rarely travel abroad and communication links with the outside world are severely restricted, while criticism of the government is ruthlessly suppressed.
That leaves a lot of space for speculation and, at times, baseless rumours and misinformation.
Still, analysts believe it is possible to make educated guesses about Kim’s intentions.
Lankov said Kim will want to draw attention to himself in the run-up to the US presidential election in November, which is shaping up to be a rerun of the 2020 contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.
“Ideally, the North Koreans would like to negotiate with a Donald Trump government de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state. Because Donald Trump, being a very unusual, unconventional president, can theoretically accept North Korea as a nuclear state,” Lankov said.
“Their chances to get such a deal under anybody but Donald Trump are pretty close to zero.”
Frank said Kim’s decision to break with the unification policy of his grandfather and father may be an effort to build legitimacy as a leader in his own right.
“We can speculate that he does so in order to be able to inherit his power to one of his own offspring more easily,” he said. “Whether this will work remains to be seen.”
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