North Korea has once again intensified its belligerent rhetoric against South Korea and the United States, raising concerns among analysts that the threat goes beyond the usual bluster from Kim Jong Un. In a fiery political speech to the Communist Party, the North Korean leader dismissed the possibility of peaceful reunification with South Korea and outlined plans to exponentially expand the country's nuclear arsenal.
Aggressive rhetoric of Kim Jong Un As 2023 drew to a close, Kim Jong Un gave a provocative speech, characterizing the relationship between North and South Korea as that of "two hostile countries and two belligerents." The speech, reported by the KCNA news agency, called for an exponential increase in North Korea's nuclear capabilities, increased ballistic missile testing and the launch of three new spy satellites.
Kim has warned of the possibility of war on the Korean peninsula, citing reckless moves by South Korea and the United States in preparation for an invasion. In 2023, North Korea set a record for missile launches, including a claim of a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach anywhere in the United States.
In addition, the regime launched a rocket that successfully put a spy satellite into orbit. The intensity of missile testing has raised global concerns about the North's military capabilities. On January 6, North Korea fired at least 60 artillery missiles into waters near the South Korean island of Jeonpyeong, escalating tensions in the region.
Satellite images have revealed the modernization and expansion of North Korea's chemical complex near Manpo, indicating progress in the production of rocket fuel and reagents for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported on the operational status of the second nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, with potential implications for weapons production.
Experts, including those at the 38 North website of the Washington-based Stimson think tank, have raised the alarm about the seriousness of the current situation. Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker, both seasoned analysts, claim that the security environment on the Korean Peninsula is "more dangerous than any since early June 1950, which marked the outbreak of the Korean War." They argue that Kim Jong Un may have strategically decided to go to war, emphasizing the gravity of the situation beyond routine warnings.
Abandoning the goal of normalizing relations Analysts' warnings focus on North Korea's departure from its long-held goal of "normalizing" relations with the United States. The failure of the 2019 Hanoi summit between Kim Jong Un and former President Donald Trump dealt a significant blow to North Korea.
The summit was intended to discuss sanctions relief in exchange for North Korea's commitment to denuclearization, but talks broke down without a resolution.
Analysts argue that the complete abandonment of the goal of improving relations with the United States has changed the strategic landscape in and around Korea.
Kim's perceived loss of face at the Hanoi summit may have prompted a reassessment of North Korea's approach, leading to its current dangerous path. North Korea's recent actions indicate a departure from its historic stance of seeking normalization of relations with the United States.
The regime seems to believe that such normalization is now out of reach. Analysts suggest that, five years after the Hanoi summit, North Korea sees an opportunity to challenge the status quo. The country is strengthening ties with Russia by supporting Moscow's war in Ukraine through the procurement of artillery missiles.
At the same time, North Korea believes that the United States is in "global retreat", which further affects its strategic decisions. Escalating war rhetoric, increased missile launches and strategic shifts in North Korea's goals have raised concerns about the potential for conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
The deviation from the goal of normalizing relations with the United States, along with the perceived failure of the Hanoi summit, has changed the dynamics in the region. Assessing North Korea's rationality amid heightened tensions Garen Maloy, a professor of international relations at Daito Bunka University in Tokyo, rejects the idea that North Korea is preparing for war.
According to him, calls for military readiness are not uncommon in a secretive nation, and caution is needed in interpreting such signals. Maloy believes that dismissing these actions as senseless is unreasonable, but at the same time, assuming they point to imminent war, is also unfounded.
Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo, argues that the current geopolitical landscape does not favor North Korea's propensity for war. He points out that North Korea has made diplomatic strides in cultivating alliances with China and Russia, which makes them less likely to embark on a military adventure at this time.
Hinata-Yamaguchi acknowledges that North Korea could potentially rely on support from Moscow and Beijing. However, he adds a key caveat, stating that the regime may not trust these allies enough to be sure of their help in the event of war.
He suggests that the North Korean leadership, including Kim Jong Un and his sister Kim Yo Jong, may be using strategic language to signal military action without intending to follow through. Garen Malloy argues that Kim Jong Un is not a "madman" but a rational actor, highlighting the dictator's interest in creating a closer alliance with Russia.
Maloy rejects the narrative that North Korea has no choice but to go to war because of its failed engagement with the US, pointing to flaws in logic and motivation.