In recent weeks, the Korean Peninsula had two situations going on in the South and North. South Korea was holding its first summit on May 21 with US President Joe Biden in Seoul, just 10 days after President Yoon Suk-yeol’s inauguration. The two leaders agreed on escalating the alliance into a “Global Comprehensive Strategic Alliance.” South Korea has decided to cooperate with the US in high-tech fields and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). They also agreed to restart the high-level Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group, EDSCG, in response to North Korea’s nuclear threat. Yoon, in his first media interview with CNN on Monday, said: “The age of appeasing North Korea is over.” He stressed that “new talks” must be initiated.
Meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited Korean People‘s Army Marshal Hyon Chol-hae’s funeral on Tuesday to express his condolences. On the following day, Kim attended Hyon’s funeral ceremony to send off his mentor. The released photos showed Kim Jong-un personally carrying Hyon’s coffin at the very front line with a grieving expression. On Monday, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Workers’ Party, wrote: “Comrade Kim Jong-un is suffering from the great loss of a solid revolutionary who was his most respected senior in the revolution and an elder in our military.”
The two scenes made a subtle contrast. In the inter-Korean confrontation that has gone on for more than 70 years, South Korea is expanding its capabilities while the North is losing it. And it is also bringing about a strange atmosphere. President Yoon Suk-yeol has said: “The credit for inter-Korean dialogue depends on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.” North Korea is calling for absolute defense of its fundamental interests, along with the possibility of additional nuclear tests and missile launches. Will the two Koreas continue to clash power-to-power even after the inauguration of the new government? How should we understand this multifaceted and ongoing situation between the two Koreas?
In this context, this week’s discussion invites two experts on North Korea who have long served at major domestic think tanks. Jun Bong-Geun is a professor at the Korean National Diplomatic Academy, and was secretary to the South Korean president for international security affairs at the presidential office. We also have senior research fellow Cho Han-bum from the Korea Institute for National Unification, who is also a senior member of the National Unification Advisory Council. These two experts’ research areas cover the North Korean nuclear issue, inter-Korean relations, nuclear policy, strategic studies, and so on.
Hwang: How do you evaluate the South Korea-US Leaders’ joint statement overall?
Jun: The South Korea-US Summit was held amid a drastic deterioration in the diplomatic and security environment, including North Korea’s nuclear armament, intensifying US-China strategic competition, severance of the global supply chain, a climate change crisis and others. The two leaders agreed on commitment to a “global comprehensive strategic alliance” in order to counter such diplomatic and security threats. This summit is particularly meaningful in that the two countries confirmed the reciprocity and strategic complementarity of South Korea-US relations. From South Korea’s stance, the United States has always been an irreplaceable diplomatic, security, economic, and scientific asset. The recent summit assured that Korea is also an indispensable asset to the US, in the same dimension.
Cho: As mentioned, the South Korea-US alliance has evolved into a global comprehensive strategic alliance. It can be said that this agreement is a further developed version of the previous one, between former President Moon Jae-in and President Biden on May 21, 2021. A global alliance basically means that the spatial scope of the alliance has expanded from the Korean Peninsula to the region and the entire globe at large. What stands at the core of the comprehensive strategic alliance is economic security and a value alliance. The essence of economic security is high technology and supply chains. Democracy and human rights are the most basic foundations of a value alliance. Due to the US-China strategic competition and Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine, a confrontation between the US-led democratic camp and an authoritarian camp centered on China and Russia is being formed. We can evaluate that South Korea, which leads the high-tech industry and entered the ranks of advanced countries in 2021, has clarified its cooperative relationship with the South Korea-US alliance and its place in the democratic camp.
Hwang: How do you see the two leaders’ agreement on the threat from North Korea?
Cho: The two countries’ positions are almost the same as their previous ones, as they are emphasizing deterrence and dialogue with the aim of North Korea’s complete denuclearization. It is also noteworthy that countermeasures, which were halted under former US President Donald Trump, were resumed. This includes the confirmation of the extended deterrence pledges; operation of a high-level EDSCG; expansion of South Korea-US joint military exercises; and deployment of US strategic assets. However, North Korea has declared that it can preemptively use nuclear weapons against South Korea, even if they are not in a state of nuclear war. In addition, North Korea has not yet equipped itself with nuclear capabilities against the US mainland, but its tactical nuclear weapon that is capable of attacking South Korea is estimated to be in the final stage of development. The Korean Peninsula’s nuclear issue has shifted into a qualitative matter, and South Korea is a party that directly faces North Korea’s nuclear threat. Compared to how the US has signed the Nuclear Sharing Arrangements with NATO, its extended deterrence policy on South Korea is quite insufficient. In the coming future, the reliability of extended deterrence should be systematically improved, and securing a complete right to nuclear enrichment and reprocessing should also be considered, in case of an emergency.
Jun: As North Korea’s nuclear armament is actualized, establishing military deterrence against it must be a priority in the policy toward North Korea. To that end, the leaders of South Korea and the US agreed to reaffirm their pledges to extended deterrence; normalization and expansion of joint military drills; early stage operation of the EDSCG; and deployment of strategic assets in a timely manner. However, a cautious approach is needed to ensure that such deterrents are not built to accelerate the arms race or to escalate military tensions between the two Koreas. Otherwise, the effort to resume negotiations on North Korea‘s nuclear program must double what is expected.
Hwang: Like how Russian President Vladmir Putin is warning Ukraine, Kim Jong-un is also showing his willingness to use nuclear weapons in any situation where its fundamental interests are violated, although it is not in a state of war. To what extent do you see the possibility of such a situation?
Jun: Most nuclear-armed states deny the preemptive use of nuclear weapons and generally have a passive nuclear doctrine in which they will use nuclear weapons only to deter retaliation against other attacks. On the other hand, North Korea has been threatening the South with the preemptive nuclear strike card since 2013, making it the world‘s most aggressive nuclear doctrine. Recently, North Korea is working on developing tactical nuclear weapons. In other words, this means that North Korea will develop nuclear weapons that can be used in actual combat situations, not just to deter war. In today’s world where the nuclear taboo is prevalent, it is highly unlikely that an actual nuclear weapon will be used. However, as long as North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, it is necessary to prepare a multi-layered military response system consisting of things like preemptive strikes, defense and retaliation deterrence.
Cho: In the case of North Korea, there seems to be growing backlash to the regime due to internal difficulties from sanctions and COVID-19. When we look into the United Nations’ Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), it is based on an implicit promise that nuclear powers will not attack non-nuclear states under any circumstances other than nuclear war. In this sense, North Korea’s warning is a dangerous move that shakes the whole foundation of the NPT framework. If the nuclear threat against non-nuclear countries starts to increase, more countries may attempt to possess nuclear weapons, which will fundamentally corner the status of existing nuclear powers in turn. Therefore, it is unlikely that nuclear states, including North Korea, will preemptively use their nuclear weapons unless they are in a critical situation of survival.
Hwang: The possibility of North Korea conducting nuclear tests and launching additional ICBMs is increasing. Do you think it will be implemented this year?
Cho: North Korea’s missile provocations, which have become more serious since January this year, can be seen as just fulfilling a preset schedule. However, it will not be so easy for the North to carry out nuclear tests immediately, because it is a matter of political significance. In particular, North Korea has officially admitted the outbreak of COVID-19. Under such conditions, if a nuclear test is carried out when all transportation measures are limited, it will bring negative effects on the regime, as well as the North Korean people’s sentiments.
Jun: The specific timing of North Korea’s nuclear test and ICBM launch is difficult to predict. Since North Korea suspended its nuclear test and mid- to long-range missile tests in 2018, there is a military technical demand to test new nuclear warheads, advanced missiles and mid- to long-range missiles before mass production and deployment. It is expected that North Korea will select the best timing to maximize the internal and external political effects of conducting these tests. For the time being, North Korea is unlikely to carry out a nuclear test, as it is confronting serious health and quarantine crises at the moment.
Hwang: The Yoon administration is attempting to lead relations with North Korea and promote policies to induce changes in the North. There are concerns about North Korea’s resistance as it became more hardline. There is also the rise of “power-to-power” politics in inter-Korean relations, to which Yoon government’s policies are oriented.
Jun: If the South Korean government raises human rights issues and promotes a change-inducing policy, North Korea’s armed provocation or “strategic patience” is expected. However, whether North Korea pursues either a hardline approach or dialogue toward South Korea is generally due to its own needs rather than a response to South Korea’s policy toward it. In case a power-to-power confrontation comes, there must be active promotion of inter-Korean dialogue to relieve tensions, as well as building strong military deterrence.
Cho: Unlike the Moon administration, which stressed inter-Korean relations, the Yoon administration chose to lead the relationship with North Korea and to induce change in the North through cooperation with the international community. In particular, the inducement of change in North Korea is likely to conflict with North Korea’s policy, which aims for a closed and solidified system. The South Korea-US Summit also focused on deterrence rather than dialogue. For a while from now on, a strong phase of power-to-power is inevitable in inter-Korean and US-North Korea relations. However, there remains room for dialogue and diplomacy, as the escalation of the crisis on the Korean Peninsula is burdensome for the two Koreas and the US.
Hwang: The quarantine situation in North Korea seems to be very serious. What do you think of the situation in North Korea?
Cho: Kim Jong-un himself described the current situation as a “the greatest turmoil since the founding of the country.” Currently, North Korea is having difficulty with farming unless urban areas provide “agricultural support,” as it is going through a busy farming season. Nevertheless, the travel ban between cities, provinces, and counties means that the situation is very serious. Given that there have been no official COVID-19 vaccinations reported in North Korea and that the medical system is virtually paralyzed, there are concerns of nationwide damage. Moreover, as almost half of the residents are malnourished, their weak immunity is another concern. North Korea is evaluating that it is recovering well from the COVID-19 situation, but the actual situation is presumed to be worse than the official announcement by North Korean authorities.
Jun: First of all, it is difficult to clearly figure out what the situation is in North Korea. The only channel are the North Korean government’s announcements. However, North Korea’s capacities in public health and disease control are critically low. There are no COVID-19 diagnostic samples, inspection facilities, N95 or KF94 quarantine masks, nor COVID-19 vaccines. In this context, it is estimated that there will be far more COVID-19 confirmed cases and deaths than the government has announced. Furthermore, the nutritional status of vulnerable residents such as seniors and children is very poor. The number of deaths is expected to increase significantly as COVID-19 spreads more and more.
Hwang: Do you anticipate that the quarantine situation in North Korea will bring a positive effect on inter-Korean relations?
Jun: North Korea’s health and quarantine crisis is an opportunity for North Korea to open up and improve inter-Korean relations. However, if South Korea insists on inter-Korean dialogue and direct support in order to achieve results in its policy toward North Korea in a short period of time, North Korea is highly likely to shut the South out again. Therefore, in consideration of North Korea’s cautious position, I would recommend providing health and quarantine supplies through international organizations or private relief organizations in the early stages.
Cho: Given that Kim Jong-un mentioned the importance of studying “the quarantine policies, achievements, and experiences from advanced countries,” the possibility of accepting external support seems to be open. In fact, South Korea and the United States are the only countries that can provide vaccines and treatments at the level where all North Koreans can achieve collective immunity. Both Biden and Yoon had reaffirmed their willingness to provide vaccine aid to North Korea at their summit.
Hwang: At the inauguration ceremony, President Yoon used the term “complete denuclearization” of North Korea. What do you think the term “complete” means?
Cho: Given that North Korea’s complete denuclearization will require at least about 20 years, a complete denuclearization within a short period of time through a package deal is physically difficult. Therefore, it will be tough to apply the “denuclearization first, promoting relationship later” model. Even if complete denuclearization is not actualized, it would be a realistic alternative to execute all measures in tandem -- including improving relations and discussing a peace treaty -- in case there is some progress in practical denuclearization. Based on a comprehensive agreement on complete denuclearization, we can say that setting an entrance to denuclearization that involves specific actions might be the immediate goal at the current stage.
Jun: During the last five years of the Moon administration, inter-Korean and US-North Korea summits were held several times. There was an agreement on “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” at that time. In the meantime, however, North Korea has continued operating its nuclear facilities internally and strived to strengthen its nuclear capabilities. In this vein, the Yoon administration is demanding “verifiable denuclearization,” not just a verbal one.
Hwang: President Yoon emphasized “freedom” 35 times at his inauguration address. How should we interpret it in terms of inter-Korean relations?
Jun: I anticipate that North Korean human rights issues will be assertively raised both at home and abroad. Specifically, launching the North Korean Human Rights Foundation as mandated by the North Korean Human Rights Act; permitting leaflets in North Korea under freedom of speech; the nomination of an ambassador for North Korean human rights cooperation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and participation in the UN General Assembly’s resolution on North Korea human rights are expected. I assume the military tensions between the two Koreas will temporarily escalate as North Korea will strongly oppose these measures, and threaten political and military retaliation.
Cho: The Yoon administration recognized the problem of a unilateral inter-Korea relationship where North Korea stands superior in a state of abnormal relations. Yoon set the normalization of inter-Korean relations as the main goal of his policies toward North Korea. The emphasis on freedom is related to the identity of the Korean system. There has not yet been a basic agreement between the two Koreas that stipulates the provisional special relationship of the division system, so the Republic of Korea is the only legal government on the Korean Peninsula under the Constitution. President Yoon‘s emphasis on freedom seems to be related to these conditions. In other words, it can be interpreted as an intention to lead inter-Korean relations based on the ideology and values of the Republic of Korea.
Hwang: Every government has had different key points in their policy toward North Korea so far, like peace or unification. What would be the Yoon administration’s focus?
Jun: South Korea’s goals and values in its policy toward North Korea can be summarized into unification, peace, and security. They are all mutually complementary, but also competitive at the same time. The Park Geun-hye administration sought unification, while the Moon administration pursued peace first. The Yoon administration mentioned that it values security. However, regardless of whether the South Korean government is conservative or progressive, there will always be four tasks in regard to South Korea’s North Korea policy. They are inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation; negotiations on North Korea‘s nuclear weapons program; building deterrence; and international sanctions. While the Moon administration stressed the former two, the Yoon administration emphasizes the latter two. This is especially the case because North Korea’s nuclear armament has now become a reality.
Cho: The new government has declared a “complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea” as a task and emphasized a “united and solidified leadership of the international community toward North Korea.” It is also notable that the Yoon government specified inducing a change in North Korea and proposed a “developmental supplement”in its Unification Policy for Global Korean Community on the premise of a national consensus. In particular, given that President Yoon said the word “freedom” 35 times in his inaugural address and emphasized liberal democracy, there is a possibility that he will seek to establish a unification plan based on the values of the South Korean system.
Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the Division of International Studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation. This discussion was assisted by researcher Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.