Yoon’s Key North Korea Challenges: Pyongyang’s Increasing Hostility and Washington’s Backslide Into Strategic Patience
In 2018, North Korea emphasized the importance of the “powerful socialist country” discourse in becoming a “normal state” in the international community. After completing its byungjin policy, which sought simultaneous economic and nuclear development, Pyongyang declared a shift to a “new strategic line” of “everything for the economy.” However, since his disgraceful exit from the Hanoi talks, Kim Jong Un has fallen back on familiar rhetoric to regain his authority and reassert his control over society. As of April 2022, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) has become more aggressive in all areas, including ideology, economy, foreign policy, and nuclear strategy.
The Moon administration held firm to a one-sided policy of engagement even after both US-DPRK and inter-Korean relations fell apart, and Pyongyang shifted to a more hostile approach toward both. While the Joe Biden administration conveyed a willingness to resume negotiations without preconditions, it has shown no willingness to take actions—positive or negative—that would compel the North Korean back to the negotiating table. As President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol is inaugurated next week, he faces serious challenges in navigating inter-Korean and US-DPRK relations under these conditions while avoiding both overreaction and passivity to get denuclearization back on the table.
Post-Hanoi Shifts in North Korean Ideology
North Korea’s recent emphasis in party meetings and public discourse on eradicating non-socialism and anti-socialism is an aggressive shift in ideology from previous years. Several actions taken since 2019 reflect a tightening of social controls and reinforcement of social ideology. For instance, in 2020, North Korea enacted the Law on Rejecting Reactionary Ideology and Culture, which reasserts prohibitions on access and consumption of foreign information and culture and defines new punishments for violations; and the Youth Education Guarantee Act in 2021, which imposes new regulations on the speech and hairstyle of the youth. At the Eighth Party Congress in January 2021, prohibitions were decreed on certain elements of the market economy, and the regime emphasized strengthening the central government’s control over the economy as the foundation for “self-reliance and self-sufficiency.” In particular, the decision to restore the “unitary trade system of the state” was a revival of North Korea’s centralized trade system, which prohibits any form of corporate autonomy.
Foreign policy has also shifted. Kim Jong Un claimed at the Seventh Party Congress in May 2016 and the Seventh Party Central Committee Meeting in April 2018 that North Korea was willing to improve relations with hostile forces (such as the United States or other Western countries) if they respected North Korea’s sovereignty. However, at the Eighth Party Congress in January 2021, Kim vowed to make “a bold switchover in its lines and pursuing offensive strategy, it created a trend towards peace and atmosphere of dialogue, accepted by the international community,” and open “a new chapter in the DPRK-China relations of friendship with socialism as its core.” In other words, Pyongyang expressed an intention to deepen its relations with Beijing, rather than continue trying to improve relations with the West.
Furthermore, Pyongyang’s nuclear strategy has become more aggressive. On March 24, North Korea claimed it test launched its Hwasong-17, its newest and largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Following the test, Kim Jong Un stated: “Our national defense capabilities will be equipped with strong military technology that will withstand any military threat and blackmail and thoroughly prepare for a long-term confrontation with US imperialism.” On March 28, Kim said that North Korea must be equipped with “formidable striking capabilities, overwhelming military power that cannot be stopped by anyone,” expressing his resolve to advance, diversify, and mass-produce nuclear weapons.
In a press statement released on April 5, Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister, provided more details of North Korea’s nuclear doctrine. She stated that “it is the primary mission of the nuclear force…[to eliminate] the enemy’s armed forces at a strike,” and that “one’s nuclear combat force is mobilized to take initiative at the outset of war, completely dampen the enemy’s war spirits, prevent protracted hostilities, and preserve one’s own military muscle.”
There are various perspectives on the implications of North Korea’s evolving nuclear doctrine. These include questions of whether North Korea’s claim that its nuclear weapons are not targeted at South Korea is credible, how and when nuclear weapons would be used, and what is the actual goal of North Korea’s nuclear weapons strategy. While some argue that North Korea’s nuclear development is merely a means of self-defense against US threats and that the weapons would only be used as a last resort, Kim Yo Jong’s statement refutes this claim. She made clear that the North’s nuclear weapons could be used against South Korea early in a conflict or in response to South Korean attempts at preemption. Pyongyang may use its weapons to gain the upper hand in the early stages of a potential war to seek dominance within a short period of time and potentially prevent the reinforcement of US troops. This nuclear doctrine is very dangerous for the peninsula where, in the future, limited skirmishes along the Northern Limit Line (NLL) could easily be distorted or miscalculated and induce both sides into using nuclear weapons.
The test firing of a new tactical guided weapon, attended by Kim Jong Un on April 16, the day after the 110th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, underscored Pyongyang’s intention to further develop its tactical nuclear weapon capabilities. North Korean media reported that:
The new-type tactical guided weapon system developed under special attention of the Party Central Committee is of great significance in drastically improving the firepower of the frontline long-range artillery units and enhancing the efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes of the DPRK and diversification of their firepower missions.”
The report implies that Pyongyang intends to deploy the new tactical nuclear missiles under development and equip itself with the ability to strike Seoul in the early stages of a war. It also implies that the frontline units may be responsible for determining the usage of nuclear weapons instead of the strategic forces in the central command, depending on the situation. If the authority to use nuclear attacks is entrusted to individual judgments based on what occurs on the battlefield, this will increase the likelihood of a nuclear war.
What Lies Ahead for North Korea?
These trends all point to key challenges ahead for the North Korean regime. A heightened emphasis on ideology and fewer economic opportunities creates domestic social tensions. A trend toward re-forming ideological blocs and aligning more closely with China narrows the space for compromise and leaves little room for building diplomatic off-ramps while tensions increase. And a shift in nuclear doctrine can create greater instability in regional security dynamics. In this context, Pyongyang is likely to take the following actions.
It will continue working toward achieving a fully capable nuclear-weapon program. Its missile tests so far this year have worked to advance both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons capabilities. The nuclear-capable KN-23 and 24 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and advanced and long-range cruise missiles are targeted at South Korea and Japan. The Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) is capable of striking key targets in the Indo-Pacific region as far as Guam. While US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan claimed the Hwasong-17 is unlikely capable of striking the US mainland, it seems clear that North Korea is determined to achieve this milestone as well, if it has not already.
Pyongyang’s continued advancements in these areas diminish the prospects for denuclearization of either North Korea or the Korean Peninsula. In recent years, factions within the US and Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) policy communities have already started advocating an “arms control” approach to North Korea rather than continuing to pursue denuclearization. While some analysts consider arms control as the early stage of a denuclearization process, others view it as tacit recognition of North Korea as a de facto nuclear state. North Korea will not miss this opportunity to upgrade its nuclear strategy to the maximum level and strive to function as a nuclear state to gain the upper hand in future negotiations, should they resume.
In the meantime, it is possible that North Korea could try to increase tensions on the Korean Peninsula through offensive actions against South Korea. Pyongyang has carried out provocations in the past, regardless of the government’s political orientation, around the inauguration of a new South Korean government. For instance, it conducted its third nuclear test in February 2013, when the transition committee for the Park Geun-hye government was in place, and launched a Hwasong-14 ICBM shortly after the inauguration of the Moon Jae-in administration.
Evaluating Moon and Biden’s North Korea Policy
The incoming Yoon Suk-yeol administration is facing a challenging policy environment. The Moon Jae-in administration’s Korean peace process is virtually defunct. Only the September 19 Comprehensive Military Agreement remains valid; other agreements have been set aside for lack of progress. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are high due to North Korea’s continued weapons testing and increasing nuclear threats. None of this is likely to stop anytime soon, especially with US-ROK joint military exercises approaching, leaving few prospects for stabilizing inter-Korean relations in the near future.
In December 2019, North Korea declared a “frontal breakthrough line” at the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee, making it clear that it was in confrontation with South Korea and the United States. In June 2020, North Korea blew up the inter-Korean joint liaison office in Kaesong, a symbol of the Korean peace process. At the Eighth Party Congress in January 2021, North Korea reaffirmed that it would cease dialogue with South Korea and the US until they withdrew their hostile policy. At the same time, Pyongyang has emphasized, since May 2019, developing missiles capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons and demonstrating its various short- and medium-range missile capabilities.
Despite these numerous developments, the Moon administration maintained its policy of unconditional engagement with North Korea, withholding condemnation of North Korea’s provocative actions, continuing efforts to broker an “end-of-war declaration,” and calling for another Moon-Kim summit.
The US policy toward North Korea has also failed to adapt to the changing North Korean policy. The Biden administration’s “calibrated and practical approach,” its North Korea policy strategy announced in May 2021, and calls for unconditional talks have failed to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. Despite North Korea’s recent resumption of long-stalled long-range missile and potentially nuclear weapon testing, Biden’s North Korea policy has not changed.
With the international community consumed by the war between Russia and Ukraine and caught up in the strategic rivalry between the great powers, the tools to impose new punishments on North Korea for these provocative actions are more limited as well. While unable to get United Nations Security Council to agree to new resolutions against North Korea, Washington’s response has been to impose unilateral sanctions on North Korean and North Korean affiliated actors. But these measures have been muted and symbolic at best, targeted mainly at Russian companies and some North Korean entities, with no sanctions geared toward China. Ultimately, Biden’s North Korea policy for the past year has not been much different from the Obama administration’s “strategic patience,” which essentially required North Korea to choose denuclearization first before negotiations could resume. This is increasingly unlikely to happen in the current strategic environment. Moreover, the Biden administration has not made any substantial efforts to break the stalemate—either through proactive engagement with Pyongyang or by strengthening sanctions to push North Korea to change.
The incoming Yoon administration should pursue the denuclearization of North Korea while managing the state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula with the US. First of all, South Korea and the US should coordinate a sophisticated strategic communications strategy to try to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests and prevent its advancement and diversification of missile capabilities. This should include clear messaging to North Korea that additional nuclear tests and missile launches will be met with reciprocal measures, such as deploying US strategic assets on a rotational basis on the Korean Peninsula or nearby in the region, resuming full-scale US-ROK joint military exercises, and additional strong sanctions including those against China.
In addition, both the Biden and Yoon administrations should reinforce their efforts to bring North Korea back to the negotiation table. As mentioned above, simply offering unconditional talks with Pyongyang has not been effective. The Yoon administration should encourage Washington to move from a passive approach to a more defensive approach to North Korea to try to increase the incentives for North Korea to engage.
Furthermore, the Yoon administration should craft a balanced North Korea policy, learning from Moon’s mistakes. North Korea changed its policy direction with the title of “A Frontal Breakthrough Line” in December 2019 after the failed Hanoi summit in February that same year. Kim Jong Un defined it as “an offensive” “revolutionary line” to breaking down the sanctions “blockade,” demonstrating a new aggressive policy toward the United States and South Korea. North Korea even implemented the line by literally blowing up the Kaesong Liaison Office in 2020. Despite policy changes and provocations by North Korea, the Moon administration did not alter its policy of unconditional engagement with North Korea. This made inter-Korean relations asymmetrical.
The Yoon administration’s priority vis-à-vis North Korea is to restore reciprocity, in other words, to make inter-Korean relations ‘normal.’ However, during the process of making give and take relations between the two Koreas, there is a high possibility that the Yoon administration would be portrayed as only “hard-liners.” However, because the Moon administration went too far, restoring equilibrium requires strict measures.
At the same time, since the situation in the Korean Peninsula is already entering into a spiral of escalating the tension, the Yoon administration also needs to be prudent. In other words, the new South Korean administration should not unnecessarily provoke North Korea. They can learn the lesson from previous administrations. While the Lee Myung-bak administration’s “Vision 3000: Denuclearization and Openness” plan, for instance, was theoretically sound, it was unsuitable given North Korea’s heavy prioritization of politics over its economy. Pyongyang uses the superiority of its political system to claim the regime’s legitimacy. If Seoul’s North Korea policy forces it to account for its economic failures, Pyongyang cannot but strongly oppose it.
Therefore, the Yoon administration must craft a sophisticated and complex North Korean policy, not lean to one side. They need a balance between peace and security, engagement and deterrence, and carrots and sticks.
The denuclearization of North Korea is a challenging task. Looking back at the process so far, it seems highly possible now, more than ever, that North Korea will be recognized as a de facto nuclear power, and the international community will likely engage in nuclear arms reduction talks in the future. The Moon administration tried its best, but its Korean peace process failed to create a sustainable legacy due to the failures of the US-DPRK negotiations. It also failed to acknowledge the changed realities of inter-Korean relations after the Hanoi Summit. The incoming Yoon administration should maintain a clear policy that denuclearization is still necessary and encourage Washington to take a more active approach to North Korea, not simply repeat the same proposal that Pyongyang has already rejected. Additionally, the government should manage tensions on the Korean Peninsula and devise a multidimensional approach that deters North Korea.
This article was co-published by 38 North and Global NK.
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“Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Observes Test-fire of New-type Tactical Guided Weapon,” Rodong Sinmun, April 17, 2022.
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