• Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un could be preparing for war, experts say


Jan 19, 2024


SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this week declared South Korea to be an enemy state and formally abandoned the idea of peacefully reunifying the two halves of the peninsula, a bombshell even by his fiery standards.

It marked a sharp break from the long-standing principle set by his grandfather and reinforced by his father, compounded by his pronouncement that the North’s nuclear weapons were no longer just for deterrence.

Kim’s speech came just a day after North Korea claimed to have fired a medium-range missile with a hypersonic warhead, which — if true — would give it a highly maneuverable weapon that could travel at low altitudes and at five times the speed of sound. Perfect for sending to the South and evading antimissile systems. On Friday, North Korea said it had tested another unmanned, nuclear-capable underwater attack drone in response to joint drills off the coast of South Korea.

The regime is well known for making bombastic threats, but the rhetoric has grown notably more aggressive in recent months, an alarming shift that some analysts say could lead him to justify the use of conventional or nuclear weapons against the South.

Now, some North Korea watchers are wondering: Is Kim preparing for war?

Two prominent scholarsneither known for having hawkish viewswarned last week that Kim’s calculations have significantly changed since he last sat down for nuclear negotiations, in 2019. They say U.S. policymakers who expect “more of the same” from Kim are unprepared for potentially dangerous measures he is now preparing to take.

“We should pay attention to the possibility that Kim Jong Un has somehow figured out how he could prepare and start some sort of a military conflict and be able to get away with that,” said Siegfried Hecker, a renowned American nuclear scientist who has visited North Korea on numerous occasions.

He and Robert Carlin, formerly the CIA’s leading North Korea analyst and a close reader of Pyongyang’s propaganda, wrote the article warning North Korea could seriously be moving onto a war footing.

Shift in North Korean strategy

There have been signs since 2022 that Pyongyang is reorienting its foreign relations priorities.

Kim signaled through speeches that he was seeking to reinforce ties with Russia and China — despite Pyongyang’s complicated relationship with both — and viewed engagement with the United States as futile.

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Just this week, Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui has been in Moscow, where her Russian hosts reiterated their commitment to developing relations with North Korea “in all areas, including sensitive ones.”

As for relations with the United States, Kim passed a new nuclear law in 2022 and declared there would be “absolutely no denuclearization, no negotiation and no bargaining chip to trade,” indicating he would not return to talks if denuclearization were on the agenda.

Washington has said repeatedly that it will meet with North Korea “anywhere, anytime, without preconditions.” But many experts agree that current U.S. efforts to engage North Korea are not only ineffective, but also merely kick the can down the road while Pyongyang expands and modernizes its nuclear arsenal.

“North Korea no longer sees any utility in seeking talks with the United States, at least on the terms that the Biden administration is setting,” said Frank Aum, senior expert on Northeast Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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Meanwhile, tensions on the Korean Peninsula are on the rise. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office in 2022, has embraced a tit-for-tat approach, with his own sharp rhetoric and shows of military force.

The United States and South Korea are now holding regular military drills, and last year, the United States deployed a nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine to South Korea for the first time since the 1980s. The North views these moves as hostile to its national security and uses them to justify its weapons and nuclear program.

“Washington and Seoul appear to believe that enhanced deterrence measures, and other pressure tactics, are sufficient to mitigate the heightened tensions and contain any situations from turning into a crisis,” Aum said. “But these coercive, pressure-based measures … are exacerbating the risks” and causing the North to focus on developing its own deterrence capabilities.

Intensifying rhetoric raises alarm

Against this backdrop, suggestions that North Korea was preparing for war started appearing regularly in 2023 in statements by high-level officials — including Kim, according to Hecker and Carlin.

They began in January last year, when Kim promised a year of “making preparations to mobilize for war and enhancing the actual war capacity” of the North.

After the country’s top military organization held an unusual number of meetings in the middle of last year, Kim called for “preparations for a revolutionary war for accomplishing” reunification, the authors note.

Kim rounded out the year saying that a “physical clash can be caused and escalated even by a slight accidental factor” near the inter-Korean border. His powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, hammered home the point by warning that the North “will launch an immediate military strike if the enemy makes even a slight provocation.”

This is more than the usual bluster, the pair of experts say.

“What we’ve picked up now over the last year is just more and more pushing things in this military direction,” Hecker said.

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Along with the escalating rhetoric, Pyongyang is bolstering its military forces. Kim vowed to further expand his weapons arsenal in 2024 by launching new spy satellites, building military drones and producing more nuclear materials.

Coming off a year of a weapons testing spree, North Korea on Sunday fired the missile it claimed was tipped with a hypersonic warhead and powered by solid-fuel engines.

Even if this is exaggerated, the regime’s tangible progress in other areas of missile technology these past few years show that North Korea has been able to achieve many of the ambitions it has signaled.

So what could all of this mean?

The regime’s fear of annihilation — if North Korea started a war, it would quickly feel the full force of an American military response — has long kept the fragile peace on the peninsula. But Kim’s calculations could be changing.

Hecker and Carlin say “the danger is already far beyond the routine warnings in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo about Pyongyang’s ‘provocations.’”

“Look, he’s not suicidal,” Hecker said. “But what we just don’t understand, exactly, is how does he view this world that he’s in now? How would he see a path to victory?”

North Korea says it has produced a ‘tactical nuclear attack submarine’

Experts broadly acknowledge a clear and growing risk for potential military confrontation on the peninsula, even unintended ones.

While Pyongyang almost certainly knows that it would not survive an all-out nuclear war, it could find limited ways to use a nuclear weapon within the next decade to challenge the U.S.-South Korean alliance, according to a November study by the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, with input from more than 100 experts and stakeholders.

Pyongyang’s growing confidence in its nuclear deterrent could lead it to find more options for escalation, especially if it can play Beijing and Washington off each other, the study found.

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Still, some experts say concerns of war are far-fetched.

North Korea has a record of strategically leveraging its military campaigns to win concessions from enemies, and incendiary rhetoric helps instill a sense of national unity, said Lee Ho-ryung, North Korean military expert at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.

“If the Kim regime was serious about war readiness, it would be stocking up on its weapons and munitions rather than sending a large amount of them overseas [to Russia],” Lee said.

Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said North Korea still lags in its conventional weapons capabilities and faces chronic shortage of essential resources like food and fuel that are necessary to sustain war.

And North Korea has yet to secure full support from China and Russia for a starting a new war in the region, Yang said, adding that “disrupting stability on the Korean Peninsula is not necessarily in the interest of the North’s allies, especially China.”


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