On July 27, 2022, the leader of the DPRK, Kim Jong-un, delivered a speech at a solemn event dedicated to the end of the Korean War of 1950-1953. For the modern DPRK, this is one of the most significant holidays, somewhat similar to the Russian Victory Day, since the war was one of the bloodiest conflicts in the second half of the 20th century.
But Kim not only glorified war veterans or gave instructions to employees of places of historical and revolutionary glory. There were several passages in his speech that read as follows. “In the fierce anti-American confrontation that lasted for about 70 years after the war, our Republic reliably defended socialism and created a powerful strategic potential to protect itself. This represents a greater victory, no less serious than the triumph in the Patriotic War of Liberation. However, we have no right to stop there,” since the United States “still does not stop dangerous hostile actions against our Republic,” thereby inciting the South Korean authorities to a suicidal confrontation with the DPRK and driving the situation to the point of no return.
In this context, Kim “once again confidently stated that the DPRK is fully ready for any military clashes with the United States” and strictly warned the “South Korean authorities” of “conservative persuasion and maniacs of war who are rampaging in abnormal excessive greed and self-confidence, and are ahead in implementing the American hostile policy towards the DPRK.”
The North Korean leader said that North Korea remembers the careless statements of Yoon Suk-yeol before and after coming to power, and stressed that Pyongyang cannot simply observe such actions of Yoon Suk-yeol and the “military bandits” of the South. According to Kim, the government of Yoon Suk-yeol, first named by Kim, is taking “low-worshipping, venal actions that overshadow the actions of any conservative regime,” while returning the definition of the “main enemy” to the DPRK (meaning the “white paper” of the Ministry of Defense) and declaring “ensuring peace through force.”
It is true that Seoul “intends to bring US nuclear strategic weapons in large numbers and expands the scale of militaristic games under any sign” (which, in particular, was reflected in the results of the visit of the US president to Seoul), “but South Korea is still destined to perceive its military weakness compared to our forces as fatal, and nothing will ever change it for the better.”
And what is most important, “if the ‘authorities’ and the military junta of South Korea think about their military confrontation with us and that they will be able to weaken or nullify part of our military forces with a preventive strike, while relying on some special military means and methods, then this is completely absurd. No way! Such a dangerous attempt will immediately receive punishment from the powerful forces, and the ‘power’ of Yoon Suk-yeol and his troops will be completely defeated.” In general, Seoul should admit that it “went too far beyond the limits from the very beginning, and that it should seriously think about its behavior that brings danger on itself. Seoul should move its brains more than play with the language, and it should not mindlessly find fault with us at any time, and the best thing for Seoul is not to intend to deal with us at all.”
Kim’s speech is in line with the general rhetoric of the country. In May 2022, a book dedicated to Kim Jong-un’s military and diplomatic achievements over the past decade was published on the North Korean propaganda website Uriminzokkiri, and it also emphasized that the North has learned from the experience of other countries, including the 2011 military intervention in Libya. “The tactic of the US invasion is to force (the country) to abandon its self-defense capabilities,” it says. “The United States tirelessly utters embellished words, while saying that it will help the country to prosper if it refuses to build up military power and chooses another path.”
But in the Western and South Korean press, the discussion of the statements of the leader of the DPRK went into the narrative “the North is threatening war again,” especially since formally this was Kim’s first official response to the North Korean policy of the Yoon administration.
On July 28, the Administration of the ROK President expressed “deep regret” over the criticism of Yoon Suk-yeol by the North Korean leader. Its representative Kang In-song said that the government would ensure the security of the country, while remaining ready to effectively rebuff any unfriendly actions by the North and relying on a strong alliance with the United States.
The Ministry of Defense of the ROK assessed Kim’s message as “nothing new.” “The threat from Kim Jong-un is nothing new in a situation where North Korea continues to increase its nuclear and missile threats,” said the ministry’s deputy spokesman, Colonel Moon Hong-sik.
“We are against any rhetoric regarding the use of such deadly weapons and continue to call for the resumption of negotiations on the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” said Deputy Official Representative of the UN Secretary General Farhan Haq, while commenting on the words of the leader of the DPRK.
However, the North, as usual, threatens to strike for a reason in response to provocations, and the mentions of the South Korean leadership are by no means a fantasy. Yoon spoke about a preventive strike while still a presidential candidate, and, being a pragmatist, justified this not by crushing communism in the name of democracy, as some classical politicians from a number of conservatives did, but by considerations of an exclusively practical nature. Since the new types of North Korean ballistic missiles demonstrated in 2020 create huge problems for air defense and missile defense of the ROK, the pragmatically minded military cannot but calculate this option.
Actually, on October 9, 2016, the Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation was presented to the South Korean Parliament. This plan should be implemented in case “the North shows the slightest sign of the use of nuclear weapons.” In this case, “Pyongyang will be reduced to ashes and removed from the world map,” for which it was planned to use Hyunmoo-3 missiles with a range of up to 1,000 km and Taurus cruise missiles with a range of more than 500 km. The main target is the North Korean leader, who will be killed regardless of “collateral damage.” If Kim Jong-un takes refuge in an underground bunker, GBU-28 concrete-piercing bombs designed to hit fortified objects will be used. The plan was positioned as a development in response to Pyongyang’s threats after the fifth nuclear test, but there are several details. Firstly, a state that has signed all relevant conventions and positions itself as a “responsible member of the world community” declares that a deliberately non-military object with a population of about 2.5 million inhabitants will be taken as a target, which is planned to be completely destroyed. Secondly, a preventive strike masks direct aggression, because when the blow has already been struck, it is unclear whether the enemy was really going to attack.
As president, Yoon often called on the military to “harshly and quickly punish the DPRK in case of provocations,” while demanding the development of the so-called triaxial system, which includes not only missile defense, but also forces and means designed to ensure a preemptive strike and beheading of the North Korean leadership, including the aforementioned Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation.
A week before Kim’s speech, on July 21, Choe Jin, Deputy Director General of the Institute for Disarmament and Peace at the DPRK Foreign Ministry, gave an interview to the Pyongyang representative of the Associated Press Television News. He drew attention to how many exercises the United States and the ROK conducted in June and July 2022, including anti-aircraft, anti-ship and anti-submarine operations, as well as the interception of sea routes. In addition, joint air exercises of the US, Japanese and South Korean Air Forces are held almost daily in the skies over the Korean Peninsula and its environs. In the Pacific Ocean, the strike groups of the American nuclear aircraft carriers Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln were mobilized for the Valiant Shield exercises. On June 29, the United States, together with the ROK, began the world’s largest international naval exercises RIMPAC in the Pacific Ocean, and from June 14 to July 9, “joint special forces training” was held at Fort Irwin with the participation of 5,000 military personnel. And that is not all. In August, the United States, Japan and South Korea plan to hold the Pacific Dragon exercises in the waters off Hawaii aimed at detecting ballistic missiles, and from August 22, the United States and South Korea will begin joint field training exercises “just like in the good old days.”
Let us explain. If the field component was minimal under Moon, then conservatives and pragmatists, including Yoon, stated that the military needed a full-scale format, especially since the successful exercises should check one thing, i.e. how skilled the South Korean generals are in strategic planning. Without this, South Korea will not gain control over its own army in wartime, as this control has been carried out by the United States since the time of Lee Seung-min. Back then it resulted from the South Korean army’s ultra-low combat capability, as well as the need to keep an eye on the South Korean regime, so that it would not drag America into its conflict again.
In principle, each side situated to the north and south of the 38th parallel reacts to the other’s military preparations in this way, but large-scale exercises, as in the old days, carry a certain risk of combat incidents. Thus, in 2010, during the exercises, the South Korean corvette Cheonan was demolished, and its destruction was blamed on the DPRK. That is why both the North and the South make belligerent gestures in advance designed to force the adversary to refrain from provocations.
Choi Jin also recalled both the “Operational Plan 5015”, which underlies most of the exercises and is anything but defensive in nature, and the fact that up to 500,000 US and ROK troops can be mobilized for the autumn exercises. For comparison, in May 2022, NATO field training exercises were held in Poland with the participation of more than 20 countries. It was big news, but only 18,000 troops took part in them.
In this situation, the DPRK did not miss the chance to once again bang its fist on the table and remind the South that following this strategy will not end well.
Kim’s statements are also important from the viewpoint of contradictions in the conservative camp. On the one hand, Yoon Suk-yeol is more of a pragmatist than a classic conservative. On the other hand, his team that deals with security issues, as well as his inner circle, include are a lot of people who dealt with this issue when, in some aspects, the South Korean right ran ahead of their American masters. Naturally, this causes certain discussions in the camp of conservatives about the extent to which the inter-Korean achievements of the Moon Jae-in period can be “reset.”
Thus, Kim, on the one hand, acted traditionally tough. On the other hand, the necessary reservations were observed and, describing the tension on the peninsula, one should not forget that the actions of the North are often carried out in response.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Contemporary Asia RAS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.