North Korean leader gives instructions while touring a munitions factory in early January 2024. (KCNA/Yonhap)
While North Korea continues to wax belligerent about inter-Korean relations, two US experts on North Korea are arguing that the tenor of this rhetoric suggests that Kim Jong-un is preparing for war.
“The situation on the Korean Peninsula is more dangerous than it has been at any time since early June 1950,” began an article by Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker, two scholars affiliated with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, comparing the current situation with that before the outbreak of the Korean War.
The piece was published on US-based North Korea news and analysis website 38 North on Thursday.
While Carlin and Hecker acknowledged that the claim may sound “overly dramatic,” they went on to opine that “like his grandfather in 1950, Kim Jong-un has made a strategic decision to go to war.”
While qualifying that there is no certainty as to when or how Kim may “pull the trigger” on military action, the two scholars said that the danger of war is already “far beyond the routine warnings in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo about Pyongyang’s ‘provocations.’”
The two base this prediction on the fact that North Korea has abandoned its three-decades-old policy goal of normalizing relations with the US and has started to become vocal about using military force since early 2023.
The article’s two authors point out that all three generations of Kims that have led North Korea focused on the goal of normalizing relations with the US as a buffer against China and Russia, which led to the 1994 Agreed Framework. Even when the agreement fell apart, the scholars said, North Korea had kept its sights on its ultimate goal of normalization. But when talks between Kim and then-President Donald Trump in 2018/2019 went nowhere, the North changed tactics, they said.
The article goes on to point out how Kim, in order to pursue the goal that his father and grandfather failed to obtain, “poured his prestige” into the first-ever summit between North Korea and the US, only to be rudely snubbed by his American counterparts.
Now the crux of the issue is not where to place the blame for the failure of the normalization of relations between the US and North Korea, but “how the North’s completely abandoning that goal has profoundly changed the strategic landscape in and around Korea,” the experts wrote.
The global retreat of the US can also be seen as a factor in North Korea’s “strategic reorientation toward China and Russia.” While relations with China seem stagnant, North Korea-Russia relations have developed steadily, especially in the military area, after a summit between the two sides that took place in September 2023.
Such developments made North Korea believe that “global tides were running in its favor,” and therefore began to lean into a “military solution to the Korea question.”
The two experts stated that this was the background in which talk of war began to appear in high-level North Korean pronouncements at the beginning of 2023, as can be seen in how Kim called for “preparations for a revolutionary war for accomplishing [. . .] reunification,” in August 2023 and also defined inter-Korean relations as that of “two states hostile to each other” this past December.
Carlin and Hecker believe that this talk of war should not be regarded as “typical bluster” from North Korea.
The two went on to state that some might argue that any aggression by the North would be met with a counterattack that would “totally destroy the North Korean regime.” However, they added that if the North Korean regime believes that all other options are off the table, “history suggests those who have convinced themselves that they have no good options left will take the view that even the most dangerous game is worth the candle.”
South Korea and the US may portray strong belief in their “ironclad deterrence,” stating that Kim will not be able to change the status quo, as well as declaring the complete destruction of the regime if they attempt to do so, but such beliefs “may be fatal,” according to the scholars.
According to the two experts, North Korea has a sizable large nuclear arsenal with “potentially 50 or 60 warheads deliverable on missiles that can reach all of South Korea, virtually all of Japan, and Guam.”
If military action were to occur, the scholars wrote, “even an eventual US-ROK victory in the ensuing war will be empty. The wreckage, boundless and bare, will stretch as far as the eye can see.”
By Lee Bon-young, Washington correspondent
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