Is North Korea preparing for war in 2024?

North Korea 24

WEB DESK: North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is ratcheting up the war rhetoric against South Korea and the US once again. This time, however, analysts warn the threat goes beyond the usual bluster.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended 2023 with a fiery policy speech to the Communist Party leadership, dispensing with the possibility of peaceful reunification with South Korea while characterizing the relationship as “between two hostile countries and two belligerents at war,” state-run news agency KCNA reported.

Kim called for the “exponential” expansion of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and a ramp-up of ballistic missile testing. He also pledged to launch three new spy satellites.

In the speech, Kim accused South Korea and the United States of “reckless moves” in preparation for “invasion” and warned that a “war can break out at any time on the Korean peninsula.”

North Korea launched a record number of missiles in 2023, including what it claimed in December to be a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could reach anywhere in the US. It also launched a rocket in late 2023 that put a spy satellite into orbit.

In its latest launch on Sunday, the North said it successfully fired an intermediate-range hypersonic ballistic missile.

On January 6, Seoul said the North fired at least 60 artillery rounds into waters close to South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island at the sea border off the west coast of the peninsula.

Additionally, US satellites have detected the modernization and expansion of the North Korean Manpho Unha Chemical Complex, linked to the production of chemicals used for missile fuel and reagents for nuclear weapons.

In December, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that a second nuclear reactor is operational at Yongbyon and could be used to produce weapons-grade fuel.

Korean situation ‘most dangerous’ in decades

A recent article published by 38 North, a North Korea analysis website run by the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank, has warned that Kim’s latest moves may go beyond the usual bluster.

Robert Carlin, a former head of the Northeast Asia Division at the US State Department, and Siegfried Hecker, a professor of nonproliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterrey, warn that the security situation on the Korean Peninsula is “more dangerous than it has been at any time since early June 1950,” when the Korean War broke out.

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“That may sound overly dramatic, but we believe that, like his grandfather in 1950, Kim Jong Un has made a strategic decision to go to war,” the authors said.

“We do not know when or how Kim plans to pull the trigger, but the danger is already far beyond the routine warnings in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo about Pyongyang’s ‘provocations,'” the analysts said.

“We do not see the war preparation themes in North Korean media appearing since the beginning of last year as typical bluster,” they added.

What has changed?

The analysts said their warning is centered on the North Korean regime abandoning their long-held goal of “normalizing” relations with the United States. Pyongyang may now believe such normalization is impossible.

They argue that analysts and policymakers underestimate the importance of this normalization goal in providing a guardrail to Kim’s strategic thinking.

It is “crucially important” to understand “how central the goal of improving relations with the United States was to all three of the Kims who led North Korea,” the article said.

The North “completely abandoning that goal has profoundly changed the strategic landscape in and around Korea,” the analysts added.

The failure of the 2019 Hanoi summit between Kim and former US President Donald Trump was a “traumatic loss of face for Kim.”

Talks had centered on the possibility of sanctions relief in exchange for North Korea pledging to wind down its weapons program, neither of which panned out.

Five years later, North Korea believes that “the time is ripe for the status quo to be challenged,” the analysts said.

The North is developing ties with Russia and is supporting Moscow’s war in Ukraine with artillery rounds. At the same time, Pyongyang considers the US to be in a “global retreat.”

Does North Korea remain ‘rational?’

However, other analysts are skeptical about whether North Korea is preparing to launch a war.

“Calls to arm for war are not unusual in North Korea,” said Garren Mulloy, a professor of international relations at Daito Bunka University in Tokyo and a specialist in military issues.

“We shouldn’t be smug that this is meaningless, but nor should we imagine that it means war,” he told DW.

The worry, he said, is that “any sign of weakness by the West” in the Middle East, Ukraine or elsewhere could give Kim the impression “that this may be an unrepeatable opportunity, too good to pass up.”

Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo, agrees that the timing of a military adventure would not seem to favor North Korea at present.

“The North has made progress in cultivating China and Russia as allies, and I can see no reason why they would want to fight at this point in time,” he told DW.

“And while the North might rely on Moscow and Beijing for support, they do not trust them enough to be confident they would come to the North’s aid in the event of a war,” he added.

“My sense is that the North Korean leadership is not stupid and that Kim and his sister [Kim Yo Jong] are using words as strategic leverage to make an impact, elaborate actions that signal war without going that far,” he said.

“My big concern, however, is not so much a planned attack on South Korea or Japan, but saber-rattling that leads to misunderstandings and an unintended conflict.”

However, Carlin and Hecker insist that the world needs to seriously consider a worst-case scenario coming to pass and that the North “could be planning to move in ways that completely defy our calculations.”

This includes the “by-now routine argument that Kim Jong Un would not dare” launch an attack on South Korea or US military positions because he “knows” Washington and Seoul would “destroy his regime if he does so.”

“The literature on surprise attacks should make us wary of the comfortable assumptions that resonate in Washington’s echo chamber but might not have purchase in Pyongyang,” they write.

In turn, Mulloy said the narrative of North Korea having no options except war — because it failed to engage with the US — “jumps many gaps in logic and motivation.”

“Kim is no lunatic; he is very much a rational actor,” Mulloy said, pointing out that the North Korean dictator benefits from a closer alliance with Russia.

According to the analyst, Kim’s regime is presently not showing any signs of internal dissent or collapse.

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