During recent visits to munitions factories, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un referred to South Korea as the “principal enemy” and stated that he had “no intention of avoiding a war,” threatening to annihilate the South if provoked. Right at the outset of the new year, Pyongyang launched around 200 artillery shells into the waters off its western coast near South Korea, prompting Seoul to reciprocate with some 400 rounds of artillery fire. North Korea then conducted live-fire artillery exercises for an unprecedented three consecutive days. These maneuvers further heightened tensions in the aftermath of Kim’s rhetoric characterizing inter-Korean relations as “a relationship between two hostiles at war.”
During the plenary session of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea late last year, Kim unequivocally stated that North-South relations had shifted from being compatriots to entering a hostile state of war between two countries. He emphasized that North Korea would no longer pursue the notion of peaceful reunification, opting instead to reaffirm its commitment to conquer South Korean territory if deemed necessary. His rhetoric marks a decisive change in the North’s policy toward the South.
Against this backdrop, the Korean Peninsula has now devolved from a state of armistice to one where conflict looms at any moment.
The artillery shelling made good on Pyongyang’s earlier vow to abandon the inter-Korean military agreement signed on September 19, 2018. By targeting the buffer zone in the West Sea, as outlined in the agreement, the North’s artillery assault effectively nullified the framework. This development also undermines longstanding agreements, including the armistice and other military accords, which have historically buttressed the security of the Korean Peninsula. Consequently, the region is regressing into a state reminiscent of the Korean War.
Kim’s declaration of South Korea as an adversary holds significance in shaping his governing strategy. While Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il sought to subvert South Korean administrations using a mix of infiltration operations and deceptive peace offensives, all such efforts ended in failure. In contrast, Kim Jong Un has adopted the pursuit of a bold head-on confrontation, employing nuclear missile provocations and now culminating in the declaration of a state of war.
It is essential to pay attention to the political and diplomatic benefits that Kim intends to achieve by officially declaring a hostile relationship between the North and South. In terms of foreign policy, his primary goal is to solidify cooperation with China and Russia to enhance security, countering the alliance formed by South Korea, the United States, and Japan. As tensions escalate on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea believes it can capture the interest of China and Russia. Pyongyang is keenly aware that heightened tensions will prompt Beijing to take action. Given that China’s policy on the Korean Peninsula aims to maintain the regional status quo without disruptive elements, North Korea views creating instability as more advantageous than aligning with China’s goals.
The upcoming U.S. presidential election in November is a critical variable in forging North Korea’s foreign strategy. Regardless of the election outcome, North Korea recognizes that being in a state of war is more favorable than remaining in a crisis situation.
The primary drivers behind Kim’s declaration involve internal motives within his governance tactics. As highlighted by the unification minister of South Korea, North Korea has escalated the standoff with its opponents as a political strategy to divert domestic discontent over the North’s economic challenges. The critical question hinges on the severity of North Korea’s predicament, as the country has reached a state of disarray to the point where assessing its economic and social conditions is pointless.
For over two decades, the World Food Program (WFP) has consistently listed North Korea among the 20 countries facing the most significant challenges in food and nutrition security. During times of famine, Pyongyang tends to manufacture a war crisis, pushing its citizens into the Arduous March. When Kim asserts his willingness to go to war with South Korea, it reveals the gravity of internal discontent and anxiety within North Korea.
The Korean Peninsula has now emerged as a potential hotspot for an outbreak of war. The United States has long prepared for the worst-case scenario of escalating wars in two far-flung theaters – the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. is also currently playing a supporting role in the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war, although it is avoiding direct involvement. Nonetheless, there are discernible signs of accumulating political and diplomatic fatigue.
In this context, the escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula have thrust the United States and its allies into a triple spiral of crises. The latest developments orchestrated by North Korea are unveiling a new phase, characterized by a low-intensity conflict situation. This strategic approach seeks to control military conflict at a limited level, yet the inherent risk lies in its potential escalation into a full-scale war at any moment.
Reflecting on history is imperative: Just before the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the North deliberately initiated limited military clashes along the border, providing the pretext for its surprise invasion of the South. The recent artillery provocations from North Korea mirror this tactical maneuver and are designed to lure South Korea into a military conflict. The deployment of such a strategy only underscores the seriousness of Kim Jong Un’s governing conditions.
The transformation of the Korean Peninsula into a conflict zone poses another challenge for the international community. Countermeasures against nuclear missiles and tests, despite ongoing debate about their effectiveness, have already been established in line with international agreements. The key question is how to respond when military engagement occurs. The immediate priority is to move beyond a deterrent strategy and explore strategic alternatives designed to dissuade North Korea from further provocations.
For instance, an immediate consideration could be to proactively set red lines, such as declaring forceful retaliation if North Korean naval vessels appear below the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the West Sea or if there are signs of coastal artillery shelling. In a state of engagement, the risk of escalation to a full-scale war increases with repeated retaliations and counter-retaliations. To prevent this, it is critical to deter any intention to instigate a state of war in the first place.
Expanding the alliance framework to exert more pressure on North Korea is also necessary. While the core alliance revolves around South Korea, the United States, and Japan, it should be extended to include a more comprehensive multilateral force. To effectively restrain an adversary, it is most impactful to involve numerous allies in forming a united front. In this regard, considerations can be made for the “Quad Plus” or even an expansion of NATO into the Asian region.
Now is the time to prevent North Korea, by any means necessary, from instigating yet another war alongside the ongoing conflicts in Israel and Ukraine. Allowing such a scenario to unfold could potentially compromise the cohesion of the U.S. and its allies.