North Korea
Kim Jong Un abandons the goal of peaceful reunification

Kim Jong Un

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un

© picture alliance / YONHAPNEWS AGENCY | Yonhap

The ruler sends aggressive warnings to South Korea and the United States at the turn of the year. He appears scarcely interested in a dialogue with liberal democracies. This marks a drastic break with the decades-long state doctrine and alarms South Korea. Instead, North Korea continues to turn towards Russia. This escalates tensions on the Korean Peninsula to a new climax.

Aggressive tones are customary from the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. His speech before New Year was also full of threats: Should the USA and South Korea seek confrontation, North Korea's armies would "deliver a deadly blow to thoroughly destroy them," he said, according to agency reports after the year-end meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party.

With this, Kim Jong Un has intensified his rhetoric compared to previous New Year's speeches. In his latest speech, there was also a surprising announcement that makes the threats appear even more serious: North Korea would no longer discuss the goal of reunification with the South.

"We should not make the mistake of seeing them again as counterparts for reconciliation and reunification, as South Korea has declared us its main enemy," Kim said according to agency reports. Additionally: "The relationship between South and North Korea is no longer the relationship between people of the same nation."

Since the occupying powers, the USA and the Soviet Union, conducted separate elections, North and South Korea have been separate states since 1948. The civil war between 1950 and 1953 ended with an armistice agreement but without a peace treaty. Officially, both states never recognized each other's sovereignty. Instead, both states always emphasized that they wanted to achieve a unified Korea through negotiations.

However, with Kim's recent statements, this is no longer the case. Instead of talking about a peaceful reunification, Kim now spoke about the North Korean military preparing to subjugate South Korea in the event of war, even using nuclear weapons if necessary.

There has been no direct communication between the two states for months, and in previous years, reunification was not a topic of discussion. Kim's speech is thus more of a formal acknowledgment of the status quo.

Nevertheless, Kim's statements regarding reunification are noteworthy. The ruler is ending a decades-long state doctrine. He is also breaking with the dream of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and his father, Kim Jong Il. His ancestors pursued the vision that South Koreans could be convinced of the superiority of the North Korean system to achieve a unified Korea.

In South Korea, Kim's announcement raises concerns. The fear is that if South Koreans are no longer considered compatriots, it is easier for North Korea's leadership to morally justify a nuclear attack against the South to its own population.

Tensions are increasing.

Despite Kim's aggressive speech, South Korea will formally adhere to the goal of reunification. The aim of a united Korea is firmly anchored in the constitution. However, the willingness for dialogue from the South Korean government has been limited recently. The current conservative President, Yoon Suk Yeol, primarily relies on toughness and deterrence towards the North. Kim's aggressive speech is unlikely to change this stance.

Kim can currently act confidently. The attempt by the USA and South Korea to isolate North Korea internationally has failed, especially with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In his desperate search for ammunition, Russian President Vladimir Putin has found support in North Korea. South Korean and American security circles believe that North Korea has delivered hundreds of thousands of artillery shells to Russia - and in return, receives Russian technology.

In his New Year's speech, Kim also announced plans to further strengthen friendships with anti-imperialist states. While he did not explicitly name Russia, it is undoubtedly included. During a meeting in September, Putin and Kim referred to themselves as an anti-imperialist front.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are expected to escalate further in the new year. Military incidents due to misunderstandings or deliberate North Korean provocations are more likely than ever. After the launch of a North Korean spy satellite in November, both states have deployed troops in close proximity to the border again. Kim announced three more launches for this year.

Frederic Spohr is the Regional Head of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Seoul.