18.02.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

On the January session of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK. Part Four. The ROK’s response and more


The session ended, and the idea of peaceful unification was discarded. Even the monument dedicated to it was removed. What did Seoul have to say on the matter?

During a cabinet meeting held just hours after Kim Jong-un’s speech was published, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said that similar initiatives by North Korea only serve to confirm that the country’s leadership is an anti-national and anti-historical group.

The head of state warned that North Korea would face severe punishment if it attempted to provoke the South: “The current Republic of Korea government is different from any previous government. Our military has an overwhelming response capability.”

Regarding the North Korea’s refusal to recognize the Northern Limit Line (NLL), Yoon stated that North Korea is engaging in political provocation to divide South Korea and cause anxiety among its citizens. “The conventional disguised peace tactic that threatens with a choice between war and peace will not work anymore,” he stated. This is a clear reference to the pro-reconciliation policies of his liberal predecessor, Moon Jae-in. “The fake peace that we earn by bowing to threats of provocation will only plunge our security into greater danger.”

Yoon Suk-yeol pointed out that it is the North Korean regime that threatens the South, not the people. Furthermore, as per the Constitution of the country, North Koreans are also citizens of the ROK. Yoon Suk-yeol emphasized that “the North Korean people are one people with us, with the same rights as us to enjoy freedom, human rights and prosperity.” Yoon instructed the Ministry of Reunification to establish a North Korean Refugee Day to draw attention to their problems and support them in adapting to life in the ROK. He also instructed the Foreign Ministry to strengthen cooperation with the international community to better protect North Korean defectors.

South Korea’s Ministry of Reunification  criticized Kim Jong-un’s hostile rhetoric, stating that “North Korea should clearly realize it cannot earn anything—security, economy, or maintaining its system—through nuclear and missile weapons.”

The ministry stated that North Korea was attempting to divide South Korean society with such a “politically provocative act.” The government reiterates its commitment to responding strongly to such provocations.

However, the ministry stated that it would collaborate with the international community to guarantee that the people of North Korea can enjoy freedom, human rights, and prosperity. It also noted that it would strive to increase support for North Korean defectors.

A ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, stated that North Korea’s policy towards South Korea has changed as part of a process that began after the 2019 Hanoi summit. Naturally, “underlying such a change is anxiety about their regime… There also seems to be an internal demand to heighten animosity toward South Korea by directing internal discontent outward at a time when difficulties have been exacerbated due to UN sanctions and the impact of COVID-19.”

On January 23, the ministry stated that the unification plan laid out in 1994 “is something that cannot be modified solely by the government’s decision.” In other words, the process of unification through acquisition will continue.

The South Korean military has restated its commitment to safeguarding the NLL, which has been the site of several violent naval confrontations between North and South Korea. North Korea has never recognized the Northern Limit Line (NLL) and demands that it be relocated further south. “The NLL is a de facto maritime border, which our soldiers defended at the cost of numerous sacrifices. Our military remains firm on defending and upholding the NLL under any circumstances,” defense ministry spokesperson Jeon Ha-kyu said in a regular press briefing.

A State Department spokesperson was “disappointed by the DPRK’s continued rejection of dialog and the escalation of its hostile rhetoric towards the ROK… We believe inter-Korean cooperation is vital to achieving lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

Even the South Korean  main opposition leader, Lee Jae-myung, urged Kim Jong-un to stop the provocations. Lee Jae-myung said that the provocations would only lead to further isolation for the regime and intensify the suffering of its people. He advised Kim Jong-un to “make efforts so as not to undermine the efforts made by his predecessors, such as Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung.” At the same time, Lee urged President Yoon Suk-yeol to change the government’s hostile political stance toward North Korea, noting that maintaining peace on the Korean Peninsula is a matter of economy and people’s lives in South Korea. “We should not make the mistake of taking out the English peace pin only to teach North Korea a bitter lesson… If we respond to a neighbor throwing stones by throwing an even larger stone and cause greater harm, what benefit would that bring us?”.

Moscow and Beijing did not provide a specific comment. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mentioned the issue in a different context: “North Korean Kim Jong-un announced that North Korea would not pursue a peaceful unification with the South. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that there will be no Palestinian state after the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. It’s terrible when, instead of unity, we have trends which divide us. And yet, this is a systematic process across many regions, and the main contributor to that trend are those who believe to be the masters of the universe.” The countries that told others how to live for half a millennium and believe they are “the masters of the universe.”

Rep. Tae Yong-ho of the ruling People Power Party (PPP), a North Korean defector, said North Korea’s recent actions are due to a growing sense of instability. “The North harbors concerns over a possible invasion by South Korea and the US,” he said. Although the former North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom is now a right-winger, he still has a deep understanding of Pyongyang’s perspective and the security dilemma they face.

Much more interesting are the “expert opinions.” Hong Min, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, believes that Kim’s remarks could indicate a fundamental shift in inter-Korean relations. He notes that “Kim Jong-un’s description of South Korea as a hostile nation ultimately signals that he no longer regards Seoul as a party directly involved in issues linked to the Korean Peninsula. Kim’s speech indicates his intention to primarily address peninsula issues through North Korea-US engagement. The ultimate goal is to convey the message to Washington that the two of them are the only stakeholders on the Korean Peninsula, while completely alienating South Korea from such issues.

Hong believes that after the 2018 inter-Korean détente and the 2019 no-deal summit in Hanoi between Kim and then-US President Donald Trump, North Korea seems to have judged South Korea as a useless entity.

Regarding military rhetoric, it indicates Pyongyang’s defensive posture towards a preemptive strike.

Note that shifting the image of “enemy number one” from the United States to the South may contribute to a more constructive atmosphere for US-North Korean dialogue. Another issue is that American officials are unwilling or unable to abandon the idea of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

Cha Du-hyeogn, a senior researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, stated that the proposed constitutional amendment would emphasize abnormal values. North Korea attempts to designate a specific country as a primary foe, “further deviating from international standards regarding what constitutes normal constitutional values for a country.”

Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, said the change in North Korea’s stance toward the South reflects its acknowledgment of a failure in core policies, such as unification. “While it was only on a rhetoric-level, North Korea has used unification as a core pretext to sustain and develop the regime. Now, they are taking on a new challenge and will see whether this will help maintain the regime,” Park said. “It also shows that the North’s internal situation seems to be unfavorable,” Park added.

The author drew attention to an article by Sandeep Mishra of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, published in the Korea Times. Mishra points out that there has been a significant shift in North Korea’s official stance toward South Korea. In July 1946, before the founding of North Korea, the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland (DFRF) was founded under the leadership of the WPK, which currently has 24 political parties and organizations as its members. Most inter-Korean joint declarations, including those from 1972, 1991, 2000, 2007, and 2018, emphasize that the goal of Korean unification is paramount and beyond all “ideas, ideologies and systems.”

However, Kim Jong-un’s statement that reunification is “impossible” implies that unification on North Korea’s terms is not feasible. This admission may be the first of its kind by North Korea, but experts on inter-Korean relations have been aware of this reality for about three decades. South Korea has made significant progress in its economic, military, and cultural capabilities, which has been further strengthened by its strong security alliance with the United States. Any future unification of Korea will be determined by South Korea’s will. Thus, Kim Jong-un’s statement merely acknowledges the reality of North Korea and continues his existing policy towards South Korea, the US, and Japan.

Kim Jong-un stated that enemies have taken reckless measures to invade North Korea. It is certain that war on the Korean Peninsula could break out at any time. This statement is not new. North Korean leaders have previously made similar statements.

Fyodor Tertitsky, a Russian-speaking liberal Korean scholar, believes that “we are facing an ideological shift of truly tectonic proportions.” Kim Jong-un has abandoned one of Kim Il Sung’s main theses. This is because the idea of “If there are Koreans in the South like us but living much better, then…” is dangerous for the regime. However, such a decisive turn could also erode the ideological base. Regarding the South, the Democrats’ favored topic of inter-Korean cooperation is no longer relevant and will not aid in reducing tensions. On the other hand, South Korea can now abandon the idea of unification, which posed a significant financial burden.

The economic block was surprisingly overlooked. All the news outlets did was repeat the KCNA reports on their own terms. On January 26, Kim In-ae, deputy spokesperson for the ministry in charge of inter-Korean affairs, confirmed that “there are reportedly different benefits for residents in Pyongyang and regional areas in terms of their rationing experience or the amount of rationed food,” and “such inequality has worsened due to gaps in the level of infrastructure and access in areas of education and health services.”

We have also noticed a recent wave of predictions regarding potential provocations. For example, the New York Times reports that North Korea may launch military strikes against the South in the coming months while trying to avoid a full-scale war – similar to North Korea’s shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. Experts on North Korea, such as Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker, have assessed the situation on the peninsula as the most tense since the Korean War. According to them, Kim Jong-un’s portrayal of the South-North relations as “countries at war” and his pledge to “conquer the entire territory of South Korea” means a threat to unify the divided land with nuclear weapons.

However, analyzing this trend requires a specific discussion on how the notion of the North attacking the South resurfaces in the current situation and why it is incorrect from the author’s perspective. This is one of the later texts.


Konstantin Asmolov, a leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, wrote this article for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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