Tensions Set to Rise as North Korea Drops Unification Goal

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Tensions Set to Rise as North Korea Drops Unification Goal

Insights from Soo Kim.

Tensions Set to Rise as North Korea Drops Unification Goal
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Dr. Soo Kim – principal technical advisor at LMI and a former analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency is the 399th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”  

Identify the key factors behind Pyongyang’s decision to remove unification with South Korea from the country’s constitution.   

From a leadership perspective, I offer the conjecture that perhaps Kim Jong Un feels he no longer needs his “training wheels” as the leader of North Korea and can run his country’s foreign policy fully in his style, not relying on the doctrine and generations-old policies set forth by his father and grandfather. I would also say that Kim has been able to shed his training wheels thanks in large part to his country’s nuclear weapons program, an effort Kim has been focused on since succeeding his father. 

The geopolitical context has, of late, been favorable to Kim’s nuclearization without real consequences commensurate to his behavior, allowing Kim to proliferate, test, intimidate, and extort with little pomp – as in, each successive missile test has conditioned the world to tolerating Pyongyang’s weapons threat as a fact of life.

Kim’s shedding of training wheels may also mean that he no longer needs the South – or unification – to achieve his goal. He may perceive that he has inter-Korean relations where he wants it, and now he wants to be unhindered in pressing forward on dealing with the U.S. In a sense, get rid of the intermediary and go straight to your negotiating counterpart. This also reflects Kim’s growing confidence as not just the leader of North Korea, but as a viable counterpart to his peers and adversaries.

Analyze Kim Jong Un’s characterization of South Korea as the “principal enemy” of North Korea. 

This should not really come as a surprise. Kim may not have explicitly described the South as Pyongyang’s “principal enemy” in the past, but his actions and policies toward Seoul give insight into the light in which he viewed his neighbor. His nuclear weapons program, for one, serves not only as a reliable bargaining chip and “self-defensive” deterrent against the United States; it’s also a versatile tool to threaten and intimidate the South. Calling South Korean leaders derogatory names, prohibiting North Korean citizens from consuming South Korean culture, extorting economic concessions from South Korean governments, blowing up the inter-Korean liaison office… Not exactly warm feelings towards the South, to say the least.

The statement itself seems to create greater openings for Kim to act hostile and belligerently towards the South. The justifications to provoke Seoul and Washington were always readily available and producible by Pyongyang, but by openly calling the South his principal enemy, it gives Kim greater fodders, domestically and internationally, to further toughen his stance towards Seoul.

Examine why North Korea’s unification policy of “one nation, one state with two systems” is no longer viable. 

In truth, I’m not sure if the North’s unification policy had been a viable idea if you consider the vast geopolitical and ideological differences between Pyongyang and Seoul today. We are all too familiar with the tremendous economic gap between the two countries. Politically and ideologically, the government systems are, I would say, antithetical to one another. Merging Seoul and Pyongyang into one nation, one state – and two systems – in this context had already been a tall order. 

The hypothetical unified Korea with two systems will likely set the Koreas on the path toward a “one nation, one state with one dominant system” – and more than likely, that dominant system would be North Korea. Kim has shown no intention to denuclearize or give up his weapons in exchange for a unified Korea. Should the two Koreas pursue unification under these conditions – a nuclear-armed North Korea merging with a democratic South Korea – power will likely tip in favor of a DPRK-style system, which bears numerous implications domestically and abroad.

Going back to Kim’s recent statement, it essentially nullifies the DPRK’s long-held unification policy – for now. It’s also an expedient way for Kim to focus on amassing greater strength against his southern neighbor and more broadly, the U.S.

Explain the geopolitical and ideological implications of this policy shift.  

Kim’s statement and this recent policy shift had a sensational effect; they should not come as a shock to South Korea, however, since we have been observing North Korean actions and rhetoric pointing to anything but sentiments of reconciliation and peace for many years. If anything, the policy shift can be seen as validating our assumptions about the geopolitical and ideological chasm between the two countries. 

This also reinforces the divide between the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral and the China-Russia-North Korea collective. We knew where North Korea stood vis-à-vis the U.S., but this latest statement could be interpreted by Moscow and Beijing as enabling greater inroads into their own trilateral cooperation. 

Assess the geopolitical risks of Pyongyang’s policy change for the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. 

Simply put, we may be headed towards greater tensions in the region. Kim, no longer anchored to his father and grandfather’s unification policy, can strike on his own and is ready to wager some big bets in foreign policy. What this means for the region, of course, is greater uncertainties about when and how Kim might provoke instability, as well as how the region will respond to more serious provocations from the North. Kim’s nuclear heft, combined with his policy shift, provides a broader range of tools and options to stir chaos in the region. 

As we’re heading into election season in the U.S., Kim probably views this as a window of opportunity to deal with the U.S., stir the campaign, and negotiate with the next president. And if a Trump 2.0 administration is in the picture – with the same outlook on North Korea’s nuclear weapons as Trump 1.0 – then Kim might view 2024 as his next best chance in dealing with the U.S. directly. Should this scenario turn into reality, it could spell major security implications for the region, alliances, and peninsular dynamics.