Kim Jong-un’s change of tune on South marks completion of Korea’s balance of terror

Posted on : 2024-01-12 17:21 KST Modified on : 2024-01-12 17:21 KST
What is the nature of the escalating crisis on the Korean Peninsula, and is there a solution?
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks at a gathering of his Workers’ Party of Korea in late December 2023. (KCNA/Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks at a gathering of his Workers’ Party of Korea in late December 2023. (KCNA/Yonhap)

What is motivating North Korea’s actions? There were plenty of warning signs, but the statements made by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un toward the end of last year were nothing short of catastrophic.
Not only has Kim declared the relations between the two Koreas to be those of “two states hostile to each other” at a gathering of the Workers’ Party of Korea in late December, but also announced that he would “suppress the whole territory” of South Korea.
He also stated that seeking reconciliation and reunification with South Korea was a “mistake,” and denied any relationship between the two sides.
Has Pyongyang completely abandoned all attempts to patch up inter-Korea relations? Will the situation on the Korean Peninsula cease to be thought of as a division of the Korean nation, and see the beginning of a war between two individual states?
What is the nature of the escalating crisis on the Korean Peninsula, and is there a solution?

Steady increase in crop yield, despite sanctions
Most South Korean media outlets emphasized the sections in Kim’s speech mentioning North Korea’s relationships with the US and South Korea, but most of his comments during his report made at the Workers’ Party of Korea gathering were related to the domestic economy.
The report was full of indicators showing that North Korea had hit more than 100 percent of the targets in its economic plan, as well as full of determination to meet the goals set in the economic development plan announced in the 8th WPK Congress.
This is in stark contrast to the evaluation of North Korea’s five-year economic development strategy (from 2016 to 2020), adopted during the 7th WPK Congress, which stated that the plan “fell a long way short of implementation and consequently the people’s living standards could not be improved remarkably.”

North Korea adopted another five-year economic development strategy for 2021 to 2025 at the 8th WPK Congress in January 2021. This was after the inter-Korean summit and the North Korea-US summit failed to produce tangible results in the economic sector.
This was also after tightening economic sanctions were making it impossible for it to carry out economic exchanges with South Korea and the West. It also came after the North closed its borders in January 2020 due to the health crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The five-year economic development strategy announced during such political circumstances was a declaration advocating for self-reliance to rebuild the economy without depending on foreign exchange and support.
Now, three years later, North Korea has announced that its gross domestic product has grown by a factor of 1.4 times what it was in 2020. If these numbers are true, this means that North Korea has maintained an average annual growth rate of 12% for the past three years.
Of course, it is impossible for those of us outside its borders to verify such figures. While North Korea is claiming that its GDP has increased by a factor of 1.4, it has only released figures for select sectors, such as the machine tools industry, which is said to have grown by a factor of 5.1. Of course, there is also no way to verify the figures for sectors that have been made publicly available, such as growth in nitrogen fertilizer production, which is said to have grown by a factor of 1.4.
However, there are outside resources that can be used, one of which being the almost annual reports made since the late 1990s by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Food Programme on North Korea’s crop yield and food production.
The reports do have their limits, but they do provide insight into trends that cannot be ignored. While the country produced about 3.1 million tons of food in the late 1990s, the average annual production in the 10 years to 2010 was 4.8 million tons, and the 10 years to 2021 showed a production amount of 5.7 million tons.
In other words, North Korea has been increasing its crop yield by 1 million tons per decade since the turn of the century.
How did North Korea manage to increase its crop yield when defunct inter-Korean relationships meant that it was unable to receive fertilizer imports, and the closed borders in 2021 meant all raw materials from China could not enter the country?
This can be attributed to the unassuming, but steady, process of agricultural and industrial reform that has been underway since the late 1990s. There is no other way of explaining this phenomenon than by saying that this push for scientific self-reliance in raw materials, fuels, and production facilities, has been paying off.
After North Korea’s (likely humiliating) request for economic sanctions relief at the 2019 summit with then-President Donald Trump was dismissed, North Korea decided to pursue a completely different national strategy.
It would no longer struggle to alleviate sanctions but build a self-reliant economy that would not depend on South Korea, Russia or China. The fruits of that labor are starting to show.
“Hostile forces” and war as a “realistic entity”
One can develop an economy behind closed borders, but threats to national security will always come from beyond those tightly shut doors. It is impossible to guarantee safety simply by locking the door to the outside.
North Korea has to keep a sharp eye on the movements of the US, South Korea and Japan, and respond accordingly. It needs to stand up to the South Korea-US military alliance, which is militarily superior, and now has to reckon with the possibility of a trilateral alliance between South Korea, the US and Japan.
On top of that, the three countries are strengthening their defense against missiles and developing preemptive strike capabilities. A new extended deterrence system, put in place to eradicate the current regime, is also heightening tensions.
North Korea has been using nuclear weapons and missiles to combat the US-South Korea alliance’s extended deterrence strategy. Countering deterrence with deterrence will bring about a “balance of terror,” which makes it impossible for one side to attack the other.
When the US-South Korea alliance started to pursue preemptive strike capabilities, North Korea revealed a doctrine for the preemptive use of nuclear weapons.
In 2023, the Korean Peninsula was met with a situation in which both the US-South Korea alliance and North Korea threatened each other with their capabilities for preemptive strikes, which could happen at any time.
However, this “balance of terror” has a fatal weakness. The US might be able to attack North Korea at any time, but the question of whether North Korea would be able to use nuclear weapons on South Korea is yet to be answered.
The US and North Korea consider each other belligerent parties, so it would not be surprising if the two countries attacked each other with any kind of weapons. However, if South Korea joins the US military strategy and preemptively strikes North Korea’s nuclear bases or strategic headquarters, will North Korea be able to attack its fellow ethnic Koreans with nuclear weapons?
Will North Korea be able to justify destroying, or even merely threatening to destroy, South Korea, a party with which they seek dialogue, cooperation, and the goal of peaceful reunification?
What will it have to say to the South Korean governments and civilian organizations with which it has engaged in dialogue and cooperation?
Until a clear answer to these questions is provided, North Korea’s nuclear doctrine still remains flawed.
This is a key reason why, at the end of 2023, Kim declared at the gathering of the Workers’ Party of Korea that, “The north-south relations have been completely fixed into the relations between two states hostile to each other and the relations between two belligerent states, not the consanguineous or homogeneous ones any more.”

He went on to convene key military commanders and order the country’s military to be ready stating that he would not hesitate to launch an attack on all of South Korea's territory as “the word ‘war’ is already approaching us as a realistic entity,” and such it would not hesitate to “suppress the whole territory of south Korea by mobilizing all physical means and forces including nuclear forces in contingency.”

It can no longer be assumed that North Korea would never use nuclear weapons against the South. That completes the “balance of terror” on the Korean Peninsula in the worst possible configuration. North Korea is acting independently without paying any heed to pressure or assistance from China or Russia while elevating its nuclear threats against not only the US but also South Korea to the highest possible level.

Nevertheless, Yoon promised during his New Year’s address on Jan. 1 to “fundamentally deter” any nuclear and missile threats from North Korea by completing the “enhanced ROK-US extended deterrence system” in the first half of 2024, emphasizing once again that Seoul will build “genuine and lasting peace” through “strength.”

Expanding deterrence will only further expand the “balance of terror.”

By Suh Jae-jung, professor of political science and international relations at the International Christian University in Tokyo

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