Decoding North Korea’s Changing Policies: A South Korean Perspective

(Source: Korean Central News Agency)

At the end of 2023, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) unveiled a series of policy shifts pertaining to inter-Korean relations, marking a significant departure from prior approaches to one that emphasizes hostility over reconciliation. This policy overhaul includes framing ties with the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) as those “between two belligerent states” and asserts the potential use of nuclear weapons as a contingency for “completely occupying, subjugating and reclaiming the ROK and annex[ing] it as part of the [North Korean] territory.” Additionally, plans were announced to revise the constitution during the upcoming Supreme People’s Assembly in April 2024, with proposed amendments aiming to renounce the “One Korea Policy” North Korea has been asserting for several decades, redefine itself as an independent socialist state, and expunge prior unification-oriented provisions, such as “independence, peaceful reunification and great national unity.” Korea has already disbanded state agencies dedicated to inter-Korean exchanges, prohibited residents from employing kinship-related terminology, and dismantled pertinent monuments. Expressions such as “South Korea,” “North Korea,” “kinship,” and “unification have also been systematically erased from official publications.

To better understand this policy shift, we must review the historical context and North Korea’s motivations behind it, as well as South Korea’s commitment to unification and its diplomatic efforts.

North Korea’s Vision of Unification Over the Years

The change in North Korea’s strategy towards South Korea can be construed as a manifestation of frustration following perceived setbacks in inter-Korean ideological competition. Ultimately, it represents a survival strategy of the Kim Jong Un regime. Since its ill-fated attempt to effect unification under communist rule through the illegal invasion of South Korea in 1950, North Korea steadfastly pursued the vision of unification led by its regime, encapsulated in the rallying cry of “One Korea.” In pursuit of such a mantra, North Korea has historically sought to orchestrate unification under its auspices, envisioning the withdrawal of US forces from South Korea while fostering pro-North Korea factions through espionage endeavors aimed at destabilizing liberal democratic governance.

Over the past seven decades, North Korea has been promoting North Korea-led unification as the justification for preserving the regime’s existence and has forced the residents to endure and sacrifice. It constantly engaged in espionage operations, invasions, propaganda, and psychological warfare to cause social disruption in the South and even committed local provocations.[1] However, the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union precipitated dire economic straits for North Korea in the 1990s, compelling the regime to reassess its approach.

Consequently, North Korea embarked on a tentative rapprochement with South Korea, engaging in economic cooperation and personnel exchanges and accepting humanitarian aid from the South by holding an inter-Korean Summit between President Kim Dae-jung and Chairman Kim Jong Il in 2000. During the process, despite strict controls on information coming into and leaving the country, North Korean residents were able to witness the success of the system governing South Korea and learned more about the disparity between the two countries. The “Korean Wave” even spread among the youth in North Korea and has continued to spread despite the suspension of inter-Korean exchanges and economic cooperation after the closing of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in 2016. As North Korea found itself overwhelmingly disadvantaged in the inter-Korean regime competition, the notion of North Korea-led unification became practically unachievable.

Kim Jong Un’s Response to Domestic Setbacks

It appears the Kim Jong Un regime perceives an admiration among North Korean residents for South Korean culture, epitomized by the pervasive influence of the “Korean Wave,” as a dual threat: not only does it undermine the regime’s stability, but it also could foster aspirations for unification under a liberal democratic order led by South Korea. This apprehension was palpably articulated by Kim Jong Un during the plenary session of the Korean Workers’ Party at the end of 2023. In a bid to counteract the proliferation of South Korean cultural influences, the regime resorted to expanding draconian measures such as the enactment of the Reactionary Ideology and Culture Rejection Act, which promotes harsher punishments on North Korean residents for engaging in behaviors deemed to imitate or emulate South Korean culture. Paradoxically, these repressive tactics have engendered heightened levels of frustration and disenchantment among the populace, thereby fueling the propagation of the Korean Wave within North Korea.[2]

At the end of 2023, North Korea launched a concerted campaign to indoctrinate North Korean residents with the notion that they share no fraternal bond with their South Korean counterparts and that South Korea must be regarded as the country’s “principal enemy.”  The aim appears to be to prevent North Korean residents from drawing comparisons between the two Koreas and dampen any nascent hopes for a South Korea-led unification.

North Korea will intensify its surveillance apparatus and tighten controls over its population in a bid to eradicate notions of kinship, reconciliation and unification from their collective consciousness by emphasizing that South Korea is the North’s “most hostile state” and “primary foe.” Since North Korea has valued and promoted national unity and unification as one of the country’s top priorities for over seven decades, banning the use of such terms might cause confusion and disruption in North Korean society. Words that were once deemed and promoted as sacred, such as “unification” and “kinship,” are now prohibited and, if used, could lead to punishment under the label “political prisoner.”

North Korea redefined inter-Korean relations as those between two states that were hostile to each other. However, it is noteworthy that South Korea and North Korea previously reached a significant Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation between South and North Korea during high-level talks on December 13, 1991. At that juncture, both parties acknowledged that their relations did not conform to the traditional paradigm of interstate relations but rather constituted a “special relationship stemming from the process towards unification.” The South-North Joint Declaration in 2000 also presented a confederation between North and South Korea, in which the countries’ respective political systems would initially remain intact. Regrettably, North Korea has since reneged on these agreements, and South Korea has also moved away from these alternatives.

Despite acute economic adversities, North Korea has persisted in disproportionately allocating resources to the advancement of its nuclear weapons. To justify its actions, North Korea is setting forth the goal of subjugating the South Korean territories by reducing them to ashes with nuclear weapons after defining inter-Korean relations as relations between two belligerent states.

North Korea’s Nuclear Capabilities and Strategic Shift

In the foreseeable future, North Korea is poised to maintain a steadfast focus on the augmentation of its nuclear capabilities, a trajectory that may precipitate heightened tensions between the two Koreas.

To this end, North Korea is aggressively pursuing the development of a diverse array of armaments, encompassing nuclear tactical weaponry, hypersonic missiles, solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), nuclear-equipped submarines, nuclear-powered strategic submarines, super-large nuclear warheads, and military spy satellites. The overarching aim of these efforts is twofold: to bolster its capacity to menace South Korea and dissuade US intervention in matters pertaining to inter-Korean affairs. The possibility of provocations by the North persists, particularly near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) and the Northern Limit Line (NLL). While certain analysts harbor apprehensions regarding the potential outbreak of hostilities on the Korean Peninsula and the resolve of the Kim Jong Un regime to start a war, it would be imprudent to take North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric at face value.

The likelihood of such actions, whether localized or escalating to full-scale conflict, diminishes significantly when South Korea and the US-ROK alliance remain robust and comprehensive. Any deficiencies in defense readiness or a significant military imbalance will lead to an increased possibility of North Korea’s local or full-scale provocations.

South Korea’s Stance on Unification

South Korea remains steadfast in its commitment to the pursuit of unification and vehemently rejects North Korea’s “two states on the Korean peninsula” narrative. Anchored in a shared ethnicity and a rich history spanning over 5,000 years, the Korean people inherently perceive the peninsula as a cohesive entity, both geographically and culturally. The unnatural, artificial division of the peninsula has grievously curtailed the freedoms of its populace, perpetuating a state of tension and conflict. If more than two systems exist on the Korean Peninsula because of the division, the two states will constantly remain in a state of war. In November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 112, advocating for the establishment of a unified National Government of Korea through an election by the Korean people. But today, the region remains ensnared in a protracted state of suspended hostility.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol criticized North Korea’s statement regarding a “two-state” system or of completely subjugating South Korea by nuclear force as being based on an “anti-national and ahistorical” nature. The South Korean government is steadfast in its commitment to upholding its legal, moral and humanitarian obligations toward North Korean residents as delineated in the ethos of “a special interim relationship stemming from the process towards unification” in the 1991 agreement between the two Koreas. In adherence to this commitment, South Korea endeavors to enhance the human rights of North Korean residents and facilitate their successful integration into South Korea. It remains resolute in its pursuit of inter-Korean normalization, contingent upon North Korea’s denuclearization, and the concomitant modernization of its economy.

Looking Ahead

North Korea’s significant policy shift in inter-Korean relations reflects a complex interplay of history and strategic recalibrations. Looking forward, as both Koreas navigate their respective paths, global diplomatic efforts must remain proactive to foster stability and mitigate potential conflicts on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea asserts and will continue to take leadership in shaping the prospects for the unification of the Korean Peninsula.

  1. [1]

    Nam Sung Wook, “북한의 대남공작 역사와 구조:김일성시대와 김정일시대를 중심으로 [The History and Structure of North Korea’s Espionage Operations against South Korea: Centering on the Era of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il],” Policy Studies 155, (2007).

  2. [2]

    “Report on North Korea’s Economic and Social Conditions,” Ministry of Unification, (February 06, 2024): 232-268.

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