Over the past few weeks, Pyongyang has reintroduced the concept of “balance” and eased off references to “deterrence” in its discussions of military power. Although still early to draw conclusions, we may be seeing in that terminology shift the leading edge of what could be a significant policy development. An early, and probably only partial, manifestation of this new policy seems reflected in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)’s recent, positive stance (and actions) on inter-Korean dialogue.
In a September 24 statement, while positively portraying the possibility of improving inter-Korean relations, Kim Yo Jong warned South Korea against trying “to upset the balance of military force on the Korean Peninsula.” A reference to the “balance of military power” on the peninsula appeared a few days later in a speech by the DPRK representative at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. Then, in his September 30 address to the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Jong Un spoke of the development of new weapons systems as “ensuring the stable control of the instable military situation” around Korea, while accusing the US and South Korea of “destroying the stability and balance.”
A similar shift in emphasis—away from references to “deterrence” and to emphasis on “balance”—occurred in 2017. At the same time Kim was ramping up WMD development through missile and nuclear tests, Pyongyang began stressing the importance of achieving a “balance” or, in some cases, a “practical equivalence” with the US. In effect, that terminology was clearing the way for Kim to move to the point of declaring that the North’s WMD program was sufficient and that it was now possible to turn to diplomacy externally and to the economy at home.
In North Korean usage, deterrence can be a never-ending process justifying constant attention—and expenditure—on developing new and more potent WMD systems. That Pyongyang is now again speaking in terms of a “balance of military force” on the peninsula while taking what appear to be the opening steps in resurrecting inter-Korean dialogue suggests that this shift in terminology may become part of the justification for Kim to restore economic links to the South—and, not incidentally, slide out from under China’s suffocating shadow. Emphasis on “stability” and “balance” in the current context fits with the long-standing North Korean assertion that there must be a propitious external security environment as a first step, but once achieved, it becomes possible to focus attention and resources on the economy.
That the shift in tone and vocabulary may go beyond Pyongyang’s calculations on inter-Korean relations might have been signaled in an October 3 statement by Jo Chol Su, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of International Relations, in response to the UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting on the North’s recent missile tests. Read in isolation, Jo’s statement may seem tough, but it is noticeably restrained compared to a statement he issued in March, also in response to a UNSC meeting. In that earlier statement, Jo referred to deterrence and US hostile policy, and “strongly denounce[d]” the Security Council. By contrast, his recent statement made no mention of deterrence nor to US hostile policy, and merely expressed “strong concerns” over the Security Council meeting.
At this point, it is hard to see beyond any initial observations about what the shift in terminology might mean. Potentially, and if developed to the next stage, the concept of “balance of forces” could open the door to some form of inter-Korean arms control discussions. Interpreted literally, “balance of forces” implies a mutually agreed upon stopping point that might, in the best case, move on to a process for building down military forces.
“Kim Yo Jong, Vice Department Director of C.C., WPK, Issues Press Statement,” KCNA, September 24, 2021.