Experts on North Korea, who are generally circumspect individuals who try to prevent spreading fear, have been severely shaken by two of their own.
The two distinguished analysts dropped a bomb last week when they declared that they thought the head of the pariah state was getting ready for war.
They claimed that Kim Jong Un had abandoned the fundamental objective of making amends and reunifying with South Korea. Rather, he portrays the North and South as two sovereign entities engaged in conflict with one another.
Robert L. Carlin, a former CIA analyst, and Siegfried S. Hecker, a nuclear scientist who has visited the North multiple times, said, “We believe, that like his grandfather in 1950, Kim Jong Un has made a strategic decision to go to war,” in an article on the specialized website 38 North.
Such a declaration sparked a heated discussion among those who follow North Korea and raised alarms in Seoul and Washington.
The majority of analysts, however, reject the war theory; when the BBC contacted seven specialists in Asia, Europe, and North America, none of them endorsed the notion.
“It is not in line with North Korea’s values to gamble their entire system on a potentially catastrophic conflict.” They have shown themselves to be really Machiavellian,” says Christopher Green, a Netherlands-based Crisis Group analyst who follows Korea.
He and others observe that political pressures exist at home as well as that the North frequently takes action to force Western countries to the negotiation table.
They do concur, though, that Mr. Kim’s rule has become more hazardous and that his rising bellicosity cannot be disregarded.
While the majority feel that war is still unlikely, some worry that a more constrained attack may nonetheless be imminent.
What caused this to happen?
Those who closely follow Kim Jong Un in North Korea are accustomed to his warnings of nuclear war, but some claim Pyongyang’s most recent communications are different.
On 15/1, Kim Jong Un addresses lawmakers in the Supreme People’s Assembly from a lectern (IMAGE SOURCE: KCNA).
Image caption: On January 15, during the Supreme People’s Assembly session, Kim paved a new course.
His military fired artillery across the border six days after he declared on New Year’s Eve that “a war can break out on the Korean peninsula at any time.”
Since the beginning of January, North Korea has also asserted that it has successfully tested a new solid-fuel missile and its underwater attack drones, which are purportedly capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
They come after two years of developing weapons and launching missiles almost every month in flagrant violation of UN sanctions.
But it was his formal pronouncement last week that he was giving up on unification that raised eyebrows.
Since the state’s founding, the North has always placed a high priority on reunifying with the South, even though this goal has become more and more improbable.
“This is significant. One of the key ideological tenets of the dictatorship has significantly altered,” according to distinguished researcher Peter Ward of Kookmin University in Seoul.
Now, Kim Jong Un would be actually demolishing that legacy. In addition to blocking diplomatic channels and international radio programs, he has declared he will destroy the nine-story Reunification Arch, a landmark outside Pyongyang.
The arch was constructed in 2001 to honor his father’s and grandfather’s contributions to the cause of reunification. It depicts two women reaching out to each other while wearing traditional Korean clothing.
North Korea’s Reunification Arch as seen in 2008 (IMAGE SOURCE: Getty Images)
According to the image caption, Kim Jong Un aims to demolish this symbol of unification to express his displeasure with the South Satellite images that Planet Labs released on Tuesday. Although there has been no official confirmation of this, the images seem to show that the arch may already have been dismantled.
It was Kim Il Sung who had initiated the idea that North Koreans would eventually reunite with their southern relatives, even though it was he who had gone to war in 1950.
However, his grandson has now made the decision to categorize South Koreans as someone entirely distinct, possibly in order to defend them as a military target.
Is a limited strike imminent?
Analysts Mr. Carlin and Dr. Hecker, who foresaw conflict, have read all of this as evidence that Kim Jong Un has decided to take up arms.
However, the majority of analysts don’t agree. According to Seong-Hyon Lee of the George HW Bush Foundation for US-China relations, the nation has sold its own shells to Russia for use in war, something it could not afford if it were getting ready for fight. It is also scheduled to reopen to foreign tourists next month.
The US and South Korea’s forces are simply so much more sophisticated that even if the North were to launch an attack, it would be an ultimate deterrent.
“A general war could kill a lot of people in the South, but it would be the end of Kim Jong Un and his regime,” Mr. Ward of Kookmin University said.
Rather, he and others caution that the circumstances are ripe for a more modest action.
“In general, I’m far more worried about a limited attack on South Korea. An attack of that kind would target military personnel or South Korean territory, but it would only be small in scope, according to Carnegie Endowment for International Peace expert Ankit Panda.
This might even take the shape of attempted colonization or shelling of disputed islands to the west of the Korean peninsula.
The South was infuriated when the North attacked the island of Yeonpyeong in 2010, killing four South Korean soldiers.
The capital cities of North and South Korea, Pyongyang and Seoul, are indicated on a BBC map along with the islands of Yeonpyeong, Daecheong, and Baengnyeong, which are located to the west of the country.
Analysts say that a similar provocation could be carried out once more to test South Korea’s limitations and to put President Yoon Suk Yeol under pressure. Yeol is a notoriously hawkish leader who has threatened to strike North Korea with punishment “multiple times more severe” in response to an attack.
Mr. Panda states that “North Korea may expect to draw out a disproportionate retaliatory attack from Seoul,” which might lead to a wider escalation in hostilities.
Leverage with a playbook move
Others argue that concerns of war need to be considered in light of Kim’s behavior tendencies.
“Looking at the history of North Korea, it has often used provocation to attract the attention of other countries when it wants to negotiate,” according to Seong-Hyon Lee.
Economic sanctions against the regime are still in place, and 2024 is an election year for those who oppose it, including elections for the US presidential office and the South Korean legislature.
Dr. Lee said, “Kim Jong Un has a good opportunity to provoke with this.”
North Korea has received little attention from the current US administration, led by President Joe Biden, because of its involvement in Gaza and Ukraine. Pyongyang has also generally interacted more with Republican administrations.
Kim Jong Un may be waiting for the former US president to return to the White House, where he might erode the relationship with South Korea and be open to negotiation once more. Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump famously had a bromance in 2019 before the denuclearization talks deteriorated.
According to observers, North Korea’s chutzpah may have been enhanced by its stronger friendship with Russia and the ongoing economic backing it has received from China in the previous year. It has long-term goals of launching its surveillance satellites, and Russia has provided technological assistance to help it achieve them. The two countries have held multiple high-profile meetings, including a leaders summit last year.
On 13/9, Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, along by their delegations, visit Vostochny Cosmodrome, a space launch site. IMAGE SOURCE, REUTERS
Image caption: Last November, Kim visited Russia’s premier space center, which allowed his government to launch their satellite
“A large portion of what we’re witnessing stems from North Korea’s increased self-assurance in its own capabilities and its strategic location in relation to Russia, and to a lesser