January 16, 2024
• North Korea, led by Kim Jong Un, has once again intensified its war rhetoric against South Korea and the United States, causing concern among analysts who believe the threat may extend beyond the typical bluster. Kim’s recent policy speech, marked by the abandonment of peaceful reunification with South Korea, has raised alarms about the potential for conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
Kim’s Aggressive Stance:
• In a fiery address to the Communist Party leadership, Kim Jong Un not only rejected the possibility of peaceful reunification with South Korea but also characterized the relationship as that “between two hostile countries and two belligerents at war.” State-run news agency KCNA reported Kim’s call for an “exponential” expansion of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, increased ballistic missile testing, and the launch of three new spy satellites. Kim accused South Korea and the United States of engaging in “reckless moves” in preparation for an “invasion,” warning that a war could erupt at any time.
• Throughout 2023, North Korea conducted a record number of missile launches, including one claiming to be a nuclear-capable ICBM with the potential to reach the US. Recent satellite imagery revealed the modernization and expansion of the North Korean Manpho Unha Chemical Complex, raising concerns about the production of missile fuel and nuclear weapons reagents. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported the operational status of a second nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, capable of producing weapons-grade fuel.
Assessment of the Situation:
• Analysts from 38 North, a North Korea analysis website, caution that the security situation on the Korean Peninsula is now at its most perilous since the Korean War in 1950. Former US State Department official Robert Carlin and nonproliferation studies professor Siegfried Hecker argue that Kim Jong Un may have strategically decided to go to war, a departure from North Korea’s long-held goal of normalizing relations with the United States.
Shift in North Korea’s Goals:
• The analysts emphasize the significance of North Korea abandoning its goal of “normalizing” relations with the United States, a goal pursued by all three Kims who led the country. The failure of the 2019 Hanoi summit, where talks centered on sanctions relief in exchange for denuclearization commitments, is considered a traumatic loss of face for Kim. North Korea, perceiving a global retreat by the US, is cultivating ties with Russia and supporting Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.
• While some analysts express skepticism about North Korea’s intentions for war, others argue that signs of weakness in the West could embolden Kim. There is a belief that North Korea, despite progress in cultivating alliances with China and Russia, might engage in saber-rattling as a strategic leverage tactic. However, Carlin and Hecker insist on considering a worst-case scenario, urging a serious assessment of the possibility that North Korea may be planning moves that defy conventional calculations.
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