At the Ninth Enlarged Plenum of the Eighth WPK Central Committee in late December 2023, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un declared a “new stand on the north-south relations and the reunification policy.” This marked a significant departure from previous policies and carries profound implications:
- Kim Jong Un has not given up national unification. However, the official North Korean approach now allows a more aggressive official position toward the South, including the promotion of a public uprising and a destabilization of society. This will substantially weaken progressive forces in South Korea that have advocated for cooperative inter-Korean relations.
- South Korea is now categorized as just another foreign state, eliminating the special treatment of inter-Korean relations based on pan-nationalism. This opens the door to regular interstate relations, including both diplomatic normalization and potential conflict.
- Kim Jong Un’s declaration of the failure of the previous approach toward South Korea carries implicit criticism of his two predecessors, especially Kim Il Sung. This could be a step toward solidifying his own independent claim to legitimacy and setting the stage for leadership succession.
- The redefinition of the relationship with South Korea is not an isolated tactical move, but another component of North Korea’s broader de-risking strategy.
- North Korea has effectively relinquished the “ownership” of pan-Korean nationalism. South Korea is given the golden opportunity to portray itself as the sole supporter of Korean unity, thereby undermining one of the few ideological strengths North Korea had in the bilateral struggle for ideological supremacy. This is reminiscent of the ill-fated strategy applied by East Germany in the early 1970s, making unification by absorption much easier for West Germany in 1990.
The consequences of Kim Jong Un’s evolving stance toward inter-Korean relations are numerous and multi-faceted and will trigger a cascade of changes across inter-Korean relations and regional dynamics. In the end, it seems that South Korea, especially its conservative forces, will benefit more than the North Korean leader intended.
What Did Kim Jong Un Say?
The North Korean leader’s full speech is not yet available. However, Kim Jong Un’s remarks on unification have been quoted in a Rodong Sinmun report. Nowhere in that document did he give up on the goal of national unification as such, as some headlines in Western media suggested. Nevertheless, he did announce a new paradigm, starting with a negative assessment of his own country’s past unification policies.
For a long period spanning not just ten years but more than half a century…the idea, line and policies for national reunification laid down by our Party and the DPRK government…has [not] brought about a proper fruition and the north-south relations have repeated the vicious cycle of contact and suspension, dialogue and confrontation.
The term “more than half a century” implies a date before 1973. With a look at unification, this can only be a reference to Kim Il Sung’s Three Principles of National Reunification of 1972. These have since become the gold standard for all further North Korean official positions on that issue. The principles are Independence (without interference by any foreign country), Great National Unity (in Korean: 우리 민족끼리 or uri minjokkkiri), transcending differences in ideologies and systems), and Peacefulness (no unification by military means).
Kim Jong Un now argues that this approach has not worked and needs to be replaced. The narrative is “we acted in good faith, but the other side cheated,” as the next quote implies.
If there is a common point among the “policies toward the north” and “unification policies” pursued by the successive south Korean rulers, it is the “collapse of the DPRK’s regime” and “unification by absorption”. And it is clearly proved by the fact that the keynote of “unification under liberal democracy” has been invariably carried forward although the puppet regime has changed more than ten times so far.
This confirms the year 1972 as Kim’s reference point when South Korea under Park Chung-hee introduced the Yushin Constitution. Key aspects of that constitution have indeed remained unchanged until the present day. The formal claim to sovereignty over North Korea is still included in article three: “The territory of the Republic of Korea shall consist of the Korean Peninsula and its adjacent islands.” Article four states, “The Republic of Korea shall seek unification and shall formulate and carry out a policy of peaceful unification based on the principles of freedom and democracy.” These two principles can be interpreted as code for a Western-style economic and political system and, therefore, as the aim to replace the state socialist planned economy and the one-party dictatorship in North Korea.
Kim Jong Un’s argument is that the South’s policy toward the North has been hostile regardless of who was in charge. It would be naïve for us to assume this is a new insight. As the very cautious and minimalistic reform policy and the repeated cycle of dovish and hawkish behavior in terms of foreign policy and propaganda messaging have shown, the North Korean leadership has never harbored too many illusions about the other side’s true intentions. However, this sense of realism has not been fully reflected in public relations. For tactical reasons and in the hope of extracting concessions, Pyongyang treated progressive administrations in Seoul, like those of Kim Dae-jung, Roo Moo-hyun, and Moon Jae-in, more favorably than conservative presidents like Lee Myung-bak or Park Geun-hye.
Therefore, what is new about Kim Jong Un’s approach is not the insight as such but the public declaration of the fundamental similarity of all South Korean administrations since 1972 and the continuity of their hostile intentions. This dampens hopes for improving inter-Korean relations after the end of the current conservative president Yoon Seok-yeol’s term.
I think it is a mistake we should no longer make to regard the clan, who publicly defined us as the “principal enemy” and is seeking only the opportunity of “collapse of power” and “unification by absorption” in collusion with foreign forces, as the partner of reconciliation and reunification…South Korea at present is nothing but a hemiplegic malformation and colonial subordinate state whose politics is completely out of order, whole society tainted by Yankee culture, and defence and security totally dependent on the U.S.
These quotes include a certain conditionality, as Kim Jong Un talks about South Korea “at present” and attacks a somewhat ambiguous “clan.” However, since the latter includes all administrations since 1972, it is difficult to imagine a regular future South Korean government that would not fall under this definition.
Kim Jong Un has declared an end to unification-oriented talks with any South Korean administration that operates under the current constitution and based on the current principles of liberalism and democracy. This could even be interpreted as an implicit call for an uprising and regime change in South Korea, reminding of Kim Il Sung’s logic on the eve of the Korean War in 1950 when he tried to get Soviet approval for an attack by arguing that “the people of South Korea trust me and rely on our armed might.”
The repeated identification of South Korea as a “state” and the use of the term “Republic of Korea” (대한민국) without quotation marks ends the treatment of relations with Seoul as a special, inner-Korean affair. Accordingly, we would expect an eventual shifting of responsibility for relations with South Korea to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The following quote points in that direction:
The conclusion…stressed the need to take measures for readjusting and reforming the organizations in charge of the affairs related to the south including the United Front Department of the Party Central Committee and to fundamentally change the principle and orientation of the struggle.
The United Front Department had de facto operated as a ministry of inner-Korean affairs. This role is likely to be replaced by a more proactive and aggressive posture with the aim of undermining social stability in South Korea “for keeping pace with the powerful military actions of the Korean People’s Army to subjugate the whole territory of the south” as Kim Jong Un said in his speech.
Emancipation from His Predecessors?
So far, North Korea analysts regard the country’s first leader, Kim Il Sung, as the only primary source of political legitimacy for any of his successors, based on the much-touted “Paektu bloodline.” North Korea does not have a formalized process of power transfer, for example, through general elections or appointment by the Politburo. And unlike a monarchy, the Paektu bloodline is a relatively ambiguous instrument without clearly defined rules for hereditary succession. Nevertheless, it seems to have functioned so far, even in the case of Kim Jong Un, who is “only” a grandson of Kim Il Sung and “only” the third son of Kim Jong Il.
Against this background, North Korea has typically been very reluctant to criticize decisions by its founder, who is associated with super-human characteristics, including great wisdom and the ability to look through the enemies’ tactics. This is not to say that the North Korean leadership has never admitted any mistakes or crises. However, it assigned responsibility to external factors such as the American imperialists or officials like Pak Nam Gi in the case of the 2009 currency reform. The “creative principle” of the official Chuch’e ideology also allows policy adjustments if “the environment changes,” as exemplified by Kim Jong Il`s speech in January 2001 when he demanded a departure from the methods of the 1950s and 1960s due to new circumstances.
In his December 2023 report, Kim Jong Un did mention the machinations of the enemies and the new geopolitical situation. Both would have been sufficient to explain a new approach. But, as shown above, he went much further and declared that the unification policy developed by Kim Il Sung since 1972 has been a failure.
Considering that any criticism of Kim Il Sung amounts to political and ideological heresy in North Korea, why would a leader take such an unnecessary risk? One possible option would be the desire to build his own independent legitimacy to become a new and fresh primary source of power. The merger of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il into a new entity, which can be observed since 2012, points in that same direction. Perhaps Kim Jong Un considers all this necessary to ensure a smooth transfer of power to one of his own offspring, all merely great-grandchildren of Kim Il Sung. If true, this would also put the recent emergence of his young daughter into this context.
The “new Cold War,” a term Kim Jong Un himself used at the SPA session in late September 2023, led to a review of the many risks North Korea had taken since the collapse of the socialist block in the early 1990s. Indeed, the WPK Plenum report explicitly puts the leader’s remarks on unification and relations with South Korea in a larger geopolitical context.
The General Secretary made a detailed analysis of the gigantic geopolitical changes in international geo-political situation and balance of forces in 2023, the main features of present international situation and the external environment of the Korean peninsula… The field of external affairs should actively…cope with the changing and developing international situation…
If we analyze the new unification policy from the perspective of North Korea’s de-risking strategy, the new approach fits nicely into that logic. Major measures trading risk for actual or expected concessions, such as the admission of the two Koreas to the United Nations (UN) in 1991 and the subsequent inter-Korean agreement, the Mt. Kumgang tourism project since 1998, the first inter-Korean summit in 2000 and the groundbreaking for the Kaesong Industrial Zone in 2004 all happened in that context.
If Pyongyang has decided to reduce the number of its embassies abroad to minimize the risk of infiltration, defection and intelligence leaks, then it is only consequential that it re-evaluated the cost-benefit equation of its relations with Seoul as well. It is not difficult to put this in the context of repeated complaints by Kim Jong Un about instances of ideological contamination, for example, at the recent fifth National Conference of Mothers in early December 2023, where he complained about a growing problem of anti-socialist behavior among young people.
A Golden Opportunity for South Korea: Sole Ownership of Pan-Korean Nationalism
A central argument against drawing direct lessons from the German case of unification for Korea has been the large number of substantial differences between the two. Now, one of these differences is being removed.
German unification in 1990 showed how badly prepared both the political elite and the population of East Germany were for that process. This had complex legal reasons. The German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany) went from officially supporting German unification at the time of its foundation to effectively treating it as anti-state thought in the last two decades of its existence.
The first GDR constitution of 1949, in article 1, maintained that Germany is one. The constitution of 1968 still included in article 8 the desire to “overcome the… division of Germany.” However, the constitutional change of 1974 deleted this formulation and all other references to German unity. Even years before, the GDR leadership discouraged the singing of the national anthem with the phrase “Germany, united fatherland” and began eliminating most instances of the use of the word “Germany,” which soon became synonymous with only West Germany.
Accordingly, the East had no official plans and blueprints for a unified Germany. Apart from a general desire for free travel and a convertible currency, neither the elite nor the population had any solid ideas on the goals and methods of unification. Therefore, West Germany not only had an ideological monopoly on German unification for decades, but was also the only side with specific concepts. This helps in understanding why it took only eight weeks to negotiate the German Unification Treaty—a document of about 1,000 pages.
By abandoning all established Northern concepts for Korean unification, including the Three Principles for National Reunification, the Koryo Confederation (Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo) and the Ten-Point Programme of the Great Unity of the Whole Nation for the Reunification of the Country, Kim Jong Un is now taking the same step as East Berlin did in the early 1970s. His less than thinly veiled statement that Korean unification can only be achieved by forcibly taking over the South or by affecting regime change there will make any preparation by North Korea for an alternative, peaceful option close to impossible.
Why Kim Jong Un is giving such a gift to South Korea at this point is unclear and subject to speculation. As a matter of fact, it leaves South Korea as the only Korea with a formal concept for peaceful unification. We have yet to see how far the implementation of the new policy will go. Still, it is fair to assume that the South will be given much more room to portray itself as the sole supporter of Korean unity, thereby undermining one of the few ideological strengths North Korea had in the bilateral struggle for ideological supremacy.
The main benefit Kim Jong Un can expect from the new unification policy is that it significantly reduces the risk of an ideological infiltration of North Korea on all levels, from officials to teenagers. However, this same goal could have been achieved by simply discontinuing inter-Korean cooperation, which has been the case for many years already. This only leaves the worrisome explanation that Kim Jong Un found it necessary to prepare his subjects for a much more hardline approach toward South Korea, which bodes ill for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. With a look at the historical experience of the pre-Korean War period, we can expect more robust and more open North Korean efforts at an internal destabilization of South Korea’s society.
Ironically, the clear winner of this new policy seems to be South Korea, particularly its conservative forces. Unlike in the past, when Pyongyang used a divide-and-conquer approach to hold only the conservatives responsible for the failure of rapprochement, Kim Jong Un’s remarks are grist to the mill of those who accuse progressives of being naïve and irresponsible. Kim Jong Un’s new policy might end up unifying, rather than dividing, South Korea’s society and lead to a more proactive, hardline policy, including campaigns for breaking the North’s isolation from outside information, active encouragement of defections, and international accusations of human rights violations.
Finally, the new North Korean approach of treating South Korea as a regular state theoretically opens the way to diplomatic relations, mutual recognition, and even the establishment of embassies. As North Korea’s bilateral relations with the United States and Japan have shown, the availability of such an option does not automatically mean immediate progress; but Rome was not built in a day.
Shen Zhihua, “Sino-Soviet Relations and the Origins of the Korean War: Stalin’s Strategic Goals in the Far East,” Journal of Cold War Studies 2, no. 2 (2000): 52, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26925062.
Rudiger Frank and Phillip H. Park, “From Monolithic Totalitarian to Collective Authoritarian Leadership? Performance-Based Legitimacy and Power Transfer in North Korea,” North Korean Review 8, no. 2 (2012): 32–49, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43910311.
Few analysts had doubts about North Korea’s motives regarding Mt. Kumgang: “North Korea’s main reasons for pursuing the development of the tourism industry was to acquire hard currency in a short period of time without causing severe damage to its system.” (Jeong-Yong Kim, “The Utilization of Business-Track Diplomacy: The Hyundai Group’s Mt. Kumgang Tourism under the Kim Dae-Jung Government,” International Studies Review 5 no.1 : 80).
This change had to do with the new leadership under Erich Honecker, Soviet concerns over potential pan-German nationalism, and the desire of the GDR to be recognized as a sovereign state. As a result of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, East and West Germany joined the UN as two separate states in 1973. For the full text of the 1968 GDR constitution, including amendments made in 1974, see https://www.verfassungen.de/ddr/verf68.htm.
The national anthem was played only in its instrumental version. The radio station “Deutschlandsender” was renamed “Stimme der DDR.” The noun “Deutschland” (Germany) was hardly ever used, while the adjective “Deutsch” (German) continued to exist in terms like the country’s official name, “Deutsche Demokratische Republik,” or the railway company “Deutsche Reichsbahn.”
The memoirs of East German elites show how desperately they tried to develop such concepts once the peaceful revolution had started—and how they were too slow to keep pace with actual events. See Segert, Dieter, Das 41. Jahr: Eine andere Geschichte der DDR (Wien: Böhlau, 2008); and Egon Krenz, Herbst ’89 (Berlin: Neues Leben, 1999).
Koh, Byung Chul. “KOREAN REUNIFICATION FOMULAE: A SYNTHESIS.” Asian Perspective 11, no. 2 (1987): 285–300. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42703899.
South Korea’s unification concept proposes a gradual approach and consists of three phases: 1) reconciliation and cooperation, 2) establishment of a Korean Commonwealth, and 3) unified Korea as one nation and one state. See Young Ho Park, “South and North Korea’s Views on the Unification of the Korean Peninsula and Inter-Korean Relations,” paper presented at the second conference on “Security and Diplomatic Cooperation Between the ROK and the US for the Unification of the Korean Peninsula, January 21, 2014 in Seoul, South Kore, p. 6, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/park-young-ho-paper.pdf.
It often takes knowing and seeing something to desire it. Officials who are potentially willing to cooperate with the enemy for the sake of material gains or because they realize the lack of freedom in their life, or who think about reforming their country first need to have a chance to get in touch with the outside world. The Chinese are a great risk in this regard, but South Korean partners in joint ventures, tourism or development projects provide even easier access without a language barrier. Teenagers who like South Korean pop music from BTS (방탄소년단, Bangtan Sonyeondan) better than the North’s Moranbong Band, who use Seoul slang and dye their hair, will go beyond mere appearances and prefer the ideological components of South Korea’s culture over their own. They will be harder to convert into the type of revolutionary youth that the North Korean system wants and needs. The German example suggests that they are also a potential source of unrest and disturbance, like the punks of East Berlin were before 1990. SeeEds. Ronald Galenza and Heinz Havemeister, Wir wollen immer artig sein: Punk, New Wave, HipHop, und Independent-Szene in der DDR 1980-1990 (Berlin: Schwarzkopf & Schwarzkopf, 1999. It is no coincidence that Kim Jong Un has repeatedly been publicly complaining about non-socialist and anti-socialist behavior, especially of the younger generation, in the past years. North Korea seems to have a massive problem here, and the leader has realized that.