Wi Sung-lac The author is former South Korean Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs.
The 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party in Pyongyang at the start of the new year was a major waypoint determining North Korea’s future path. In its background was North Korea’s economic crisis, a stalemate in its relations with South Korea and the United States, and the emergence of a new U.S. president. But North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s speech did not include forward-looking significant changes in his policies except for some nuanced implications.
With regard to the economy, Kim acknowledged a lack of success with the country’s five-year economic plan and presented a new objective, but still promoted self-reliance as the means to achieve economic development. Success is doubtful.
On military affairs, Kim emphatically stressed a continued strengthening of the country’s military power after changing his party rules without any mentioning of denuclearization. A similar emphasis was placed on tactical nuclear weapons and the use of small- and medium-range missiles as much as strategic nukes and long-range missiles. Kim underscored the importance of tactical nukes as a means to effectively control threats on the Korean Peninsula. Potential targets for such tactical weapons include South Korea, Japan and the U.S. bases in the region. As this is a new nuclear threat, South Korea should pay heed to that.
In the Congress, Kim revealed the direction of North Korea’s future weapons development. This includes achieving miniaturization of nuclear warheads, multiple-warhead guidance technology, hypersonic gliding weapons, solid fuel-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), underwater-launched strategic nuclear weapons, heightened accuracy of ICBMs, super-large nuclear warheads, and developing a nuclear-powered submarine and surveillance satellites. All these hint at additional nuclear and missile tests.
On worsened inter-Korean relations, Kim attributed it to South Korea’s “joint military exercises and deployment of cutting-edge equipment from the United States” in violation of the military agreement in Pyongyang. Kim criticized the South for trying to negotiate with North Korea through “non-essential” issues like public health, humanitarian aid and tourism. Demanding a cessation to all hostile actions and implementation of the agreement, the North Korean leader threatened to respond to what South Korea would do in the future. He added that a new path will open only if the South fundamentally stops its abnormal and anti-unification behavior — a move aimed at provoking an internal conflict in the South.
On its relations with the United States, Kim claimed he showed maximum patience toward America, but that Washington only responded with hostile policies, which he said should be retracted. Kim said he would respond on a tit-for-tat basis as the United States’ true intentions will never change regardless of who is in power.
Given such hostile tone, North Korea’s position has toughened. There was no mention of resuming dialogue, nor any sort of proposal. Such an attitude implies reciprocal actions based on Seoul’s actions — pretending Kim had no interest in ties with South Korea or the United States. While maintaining a seemingly responsive stance, Kim underscored the significance of reinforced military power in a high-handed manner as in the past. Yet North Korea did not threaten military provocations, a well-calculated move. It could respond to a proposal for talks from the Biden administration and could return to inter-Korean dialogue.
Therefore, Seoul and Washington must respond to Pyongyang appropriately. I would propose the Biden administration immediately contact North Korea behind the scenes, as North Korea will move ahead with a provocation without a delay. Through this informal contact, the two sides can reflect on the past four years and confirm each other’s positions.
The Biden administration must decide whether to conduct joint military exercises in March as scheduled. If the drills go through, North Korea will respond in any way it wants. The United States must decide whether to see through the provocation, then act, or compromise with Pyongyang.
South Korea, which values the Korean Peninsula peace process, also faces a dilemma with the North’s demands. Pyongyang takes issue with the entire implementation process of past inter-Korean agreements, in particular regarding joint drills, the introduction of new weaponry and the strengthening of Seoul’s own missile program. While focusing on a buildup of its nuclear, missile and conventional weapons, Pyongyang hypocritically finds fault with Seoul and Washington’s efforts at deterrence. It went as far as to demand Seoul clamp down on “anti-unification forces” within the South. If South Koreas focuses on meeting North Korea’s demands only to resume dialogue, that will trigger division in the South, not to mention deepening disagreements with the U.S. South Korea must uphold its principles.
It could be better to coordinate with Washington so that North Korea-U.S. dialogue resumes first, then ride that momentum to open up inter-Korean talks instead of trying to find a breakthrough in the deadlock on its own.
North Korea has taken its characteristic high-handed and cold approach and threw the ball into the U.S. and South Korean court.
Translated by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.