The world hardly takes notice of the tense situation in the Korean Peninsula, as the focus is entirely on the wars in the Gaza Strip and Russia's aggression against Ukraine. Is another hot war looming?

The security situation in the Korean peninsula is going from bad to worse,“ said Chung-in Moon, security adviser to former South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The exchange of bellicose comments between North and South Korea is currently their common currency. The world hardly takes notice of the tense situation between Seoul and Pyongyang, as the focus is entirely on the wars in the Gaza Strip and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Is another hot war looming?

The two governments of divided Korea literally demonise the other side as the “main enemy” and bring their military into position. North Korea has been working for years to rapidly expand and modernise its nuclear program, and in 2023 it tested more ballistic missiles than ever before. South Korea is expanding its conventional armed forces and, together with the United States, is strengthening deterrence against North Korea by intensifying joint US-South Korean maneuvers. 

At the turn of the year 2023-24, dictator Kim Jong Un addressed the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party and warned: “The word ‘war’ is already approaching us as a realistic entity, not as an abstract concept.” During a tour of an arms factory, he added that his regime “will not unilaterally decide to start a war on the Korean Peninsula,” but we also have no “intent to avoid war” with the South should South Korea use armed force against the North and “threaten our sovereignty and security,” according to Pyongyang’s state-controlled KCNA news agency.

Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker, two American North Korea and nuclear experts who used to work for the Pentagon and Los Alamos National Laboratory, respectively, describe the situation as extremely acute: “The situation on the Korean Peninsula is more dangerous than it has been at any time since early June 1950 (the beginning of the war in Korea). 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.”

Are these assessments realistic or are the war scenarios portrayed too threatening, too sensational? The claim that Kim is provoking a possible war can be countered with the argument that the North Korean ruler has no suicidal intentions. Of course, Kim Jong Un knows that such a war would probably mean the end of the North Korean regime. But the situation is undoubtedly tense, with experts speculating whether war is to be expected or whether the region is simply experiencing more of what has been common in recent decades: North Korean provocations and threats.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has been in office since May 2022, has reacted very differently to the rapid expansion of North Korea’s missile and nuclear program and the constant belligerent provocations than his predecessor Moon Jae-in, who pushed for détente and tried to enter into talks with North Korea. South Korea is now focusing on strengthening its own armed forces with its policy of “tit-for-tat”. Any possible military action by the North should be met with determination and increased combat power: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth! Even South Korea’s nuclear armament is no longer a taboo, although this is a “no go” in the US and would call into question the close defense alliance between the US and South Korea.

In the 2023 National Security Strategy, South Korea opposes the North with a “three-axis system” should North Korea actually attack the South: The first stage, called the “kill chain,” is to pre-emptively destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles. The second stage, “Korea’s Air and Missile Defense,” is designed to detect and intercept North Korean missiles. The third stage, “Korea’s Massive Punishment and Retaliation,” is designed to respond to North Korean attacks with weapons of mass destruction with superior conventional forces. The usual North Korean reactions came as quickly as could be expected. Verbal escalation is now a constant.

Interestingly, Kim Jong Un also announced a profound political pivot in his speech at the end of December 2023, in which he questioned the political concept of a peaceful reunification of Korea. For more than half a century, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) ideology and policy on national reunification has not “brought about a proper fruition” in the North-South relations. All that remained was a vicious circle and an interplay of contact and freezing of relations, of dialogue and confrontation. Kim Jong Un has abandoned the fundamental goal of a peaceful reunification of Korea, which has been propagated for decades.

It’s a paradigm shift. In 1972, Kim Il Sung, the saint-like founding father of North Korea and grandfather of the current ruler, formulated three principles of reunification: independence without interference from foreign powers, the Great National Unity to overcome ideological differences, and peaceful reunification. Abandoning this concept now and not shying away from war with South Korea is a frightening political volte-face.

Kim said: “South Korea at present is nothing but a hemiplegic malformation and colonial subordinate state whose politics is completely out of order, whole society tainted by Yankee culture, and defence and security totally dependent on the US.”

Inter-Korean relations have experienced several crises, as has the international community, which is watching with concern the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear program: for example, when North Korea withdrew from its membership in the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty in 2003, when North Korea collapsed the so-called six-party talks on denuclearization in 2009, or when then US President Donald Trump threatened North Korea with total annihilation through “fire and fury” in 2017, only to later arrange two unsuccessful summits with Kim.

So is everything business as usual today: foul insults and threats and no solution in sight? Two developments could lead to a new assessment of the situation: First, the South Koreans are increasingly uncertain whether the US will actually defend South Korea in an emergency, as promised. North Korea continues to expand its arsenal of long-range ballistic missiles, which can now reach the United States. Would the US government take the risk of possible nuclear strikes on American cities to defend South Korea if Kim Jong Un’s troops attacked Seoul? Hence the cautious discussion in South Korea about its own nuclear armament. The US renewed and expanded its commitments to South Korea’s defense last year because it wants to avoid a nuclear domino effect in Asia at all costs. Nevertheless, a certain uncertainty remains.

Second, the risk of unintentional war has increased. In 2018, North and South Korea concluded a Comprehensive Military Agreement, which, among other things, established territorial buffer zones that renounced hostile and provocative military activities. This affected the land border, the disputed maritime border and airspace. After both sides violated this agreement, it is now formally suspended. Prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both South and North Korea have invested heavily in their military intelligence, especially in surveillance technologies. The aim is to monitor opposing activities as precisely as possible, in which the use of drones and spy satellites is increasingly playing a decisive role. Buffer zones limit these spying operations. But abandoning them increases the risk of an unintentional military clash.

In particular, the maritime border in the Yellow Sea (or West Sea) has been the cause of military conflicts on several occasions. The exact course of the maritime border is interpreted differently by the North than by the South, and the so-called Northern Limit Line is disputed as a maritime border. Regular conflicts over fishing rights, but also the sinking of a South Korean frigate in 2010, in which 46 sailors lost their lives, give rise to fears of new crises and conflicts. The elimination of these buffer zones carries considerable risks of miscalculations. To avoid another hot war, there is an urgent need to re-engage in dialogue. But dialogue is obviously difficult, if not impossible, at the moment, as both the Ukraine war and the Gaza war show. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vision of Humanity.


Herbert Wulf

Herbert Wulf

Prof. Dr. Herbert Wulf

Vision of Humanity

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