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War and peace on the Korean peninsula

By Martin Hart-Landsberg | June 12, 2024 | Originally published in Le Monde diplomatique

A speech by Kim Jong-un this January seen to directly threaten South Korea is causing anxiety in the West. But analysts haven’t taken into account the views of other parties to this conflict.

There is certainly reason to worry about the possibility of war on the Korean peninsula – just not that given by the mainstream media and their experts of choice, who see signs that an ever more reckless North Korea, taking advantage of Western preoccupation with the Ukraine war, is seriously considering an attack on South Korea. The French newspaper La Croix published an article titled ‘In North Korea, Kim Jong-un says he is ready to go to war with South Korea’ (16 January 2024). And according to two respected North Korea analysts, the current situation on the peninsula ‘is more dangerous than it has been at any time since early June 1950’ (1). At least some US officials seem to agree. As the New York Times reported, US officials believe that Kim Jong-un ‘could take some form of lethal military action against South Korea in the coming months after having shifted to a policy of open hostility’ (2).

Those who distrust North Korean intentions found support for their fears in Kim Jong-un’s dramatic announcement of a new policy towards South Korea in his 15 January speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly (3). Kim labelled South Korea the nation’s ‘primary foe’ and called for the dismantling of ‘all the organisations we established as solidarity bodies for peaceful reunification’ as well as ‘all the channels of north-south communication along the border, including the one of physically and completely cutting off the railway tracks on our side’. He also ordered the elimination of such ‘concepts as “reunification”, “reconciliation” and “fellow countrymen” from the national history of our Republic’.

This determined break with North Korea’s long-stated commitment to peaceful reunification with the South (which even included the demolition of the Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification), coupled with a stepped-up schedule of missile firings, provides the commonly cited evidence for the growing possibility of North Korean military action. However, a full reading of Kim’s speech offers important counter-evidence.

In fact, most of Kim’s speech was about the North Korean economy – an emphasis captured by its title, ‘On the Immediate Tasks for the Prosperity and Development of Our Republic and the Promotion of the Wellbeing of Our People’. Kim spoke of the need to complete projects in several key sectors, including the metallurgical, chemical, machine-tool and power industries, to ‘firmly put the overall economy of the country on the track of stable and sustainable development’.

He also stressed the importance of overcoming ‘the great disparity of living standards between the capital city and provinces and between towns and the countryside’, noting that this disparity runs ‘counter to the idea of the comprehensive development of socialist construction’. One highlighted response was a new regional development policy that called for the planned construction of new industries, healthcare and educational institutions, and housing, in 20 counties over the next ten years to reduce regional imbalances. In short, this was not a speech signalling the militarisation of the North Korean economy; its primary focus was on development challenges not war preparations.

‘We will never unilaterally unleash a war’

Kim stated several times that his country’s new policy towards South Korea was a response to a deteriorating security environment and not a desire for war. One example was ‘Explicitly speaking, we will never unilaterally unleash a war if the enemies do not provoke us.’ Another was ‘There is no reason to opt for war, and therefore, there is no intention of unilaterally going to war, but once a war becomes a reality facing us, we will never try to avoid it, and we will take perfect and prompt action we thoroughly prepared in order to defend our sovereignty, security of the people and right to existence.’

The deterioration in North Korea’s security environment is easy to document. Here is a snapshot that illustrates the growing aggressiveness of US foreign policy: in 2023 the US and South Korea conducted 42 joint military exercises. The US, South Korea and Japan conducted 10 combined military exercises. All targeted North Korea. Many were far from simple exercises designed to test equipment and communication. Several involved planning a first strike nuclear attack, others the elimination of the North Korean leadership.

There is no reason to opt for war, and therefore, there is no intention of unilaterally going to war, but once a war becomes a reality, we will never try to avoid it, and we will take perfect and prompt action in order to defend our security, sovereignty of the people and right to existence -- Kim Jong-un

On seven different occasions the US flew nuclear-capable bombers over the Korean peninsula as a show of force. Several flights were made by B-1 bombers, escorted by South Korean and sometimes Japanese fighters, to test North Korean air defences. In July North Korea complained about US planes conducting spy missions over ‘the North’s exclusive economic zone’ for eight straight days (4).

Perhaps most worrying to Pyongyang was the US success in overcoming past South Korean resistance to a trilateral military agreement that included Japan. Such an agreement was approved during the August 2023 Camp David summit. The three countries agreed to engage in real-time sharing of military intelligence, ballistic missile defence cooperation, annual trilateral military exercises, and military cooperation to meet threats from any common enemy ‘across domains and across the Indo-Pacific and beyond’ (5).

US control of United Nations Command

Three months later, the first ever ‘Republic of Korea and United Nations Command [UNC] Member States Defense Ministerial Meeting’ took place in Seoul. The UNC was established by the US during the Korean war, without UN authorisation (6), and its forces continue to operate under direct US military command. With US encouragement, the defence ministers pledged to strengthen the UNC’s military readiness to respond to North Korean provocations. The US is now working to secure Japanese participation in UNC training and operations (7).

Almost a year before Kim’s speech, South Korea’s president Yoon Suk-yeol had ordered that North Korea be listed as the ‘principal enemy’ in the government’s Defence White Paper. And, in a December 2023 visit to the demilitarised zone separating South and North, Yoon told South Korean troops there, ‘In case of provocations, I ask you to immediately retaliate in response and report it later’ (8).

North Korean leaders would be foolish not to take these developments seriously, especially South Korea’s membership of a trilateral military alliance called into existence to support US foreign policy aims. As part of the alliance, South Korea’s foreign and military policies cannot help but become ever more enmeshed with, and shaped by, US and secondarily Japanese interests. The US commander of the Combined Forces Command in South Korea already has operational control over South Korean forces in time of war. Consequently, South Korea is likely to become an ever more unreliable, if not hostile, negotiating partner.

This recent history helps to explain Kim’s decision to dismantle all ties between the two Koreas. It also supports the interpretation that Kim’s foreign policy remarks were primarily intended to warn South Korean and US leaders about the risk of unintended consequences from their actions, not signal a new aggressive posture.

It remains to be seen how well Kim’s decision will serve North Korean interests in the long run. He could have just quietly downgraded work on joint North-South projects while maintaining the various solidarity organisations that Pyongyang had established to support efforts at peaceful reunification. The decision to dismantle these organisations has certainly left South Korean activists working for the demilitarisation of the peninsula and improved relations between North and South in a difficult position. It also leaves those in the Korean diaspora who remain committed to reunification, or at least the normalisation of relations between the two Koreas, with few avenues to maintain dialogue with the North. Moreover, the political environment in South Korea is far from stable. South Korea’s current president, Yoon Suk-yeol, is very unpopular for his labour, human rights and foreign policy decisions: the next government might prove a more responsive negotiating partner.

Need for a new US policy

What we are witnessing on the Korean peninsula is a dangerous spiral of action and reaction. For example, in December 2023 a US nuclear-powered submarine docked in Busan, South Korea to demonstrate US resolve to defend South Korea. The next day North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile. It did so, it declared, as a response to the presence of the submarine. South Korea and the US condemned the action as provocation.

And in January, shortly after Kim’s speech, the US, Japan and South Korea conducted a massive trilateral naval exercise that included a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. AP News called it ‘perhaps their biggest-ever combined naval exercises in a show of strength against nuclear-armed North Korea’ (9). Two days later North Korea carried out a test of what it claimed was its latest weapon, the Haeil-5-23 ‘underwater nuclear weapons system’.

In early March 2024 the US and South Korea held their annual Freedom Shield joint military exercises. For the first time, 12 member states of the UNC (including Australia, Canada, France, the UK, Greece and Italy) also took part in the exercises (10). In late March Washington and Tokyo decided to carry out ‘the biggest upgrade to their security alliance since they signed a mutual defence treaty in 1960’ (11).

One false step and this deadly dance could easily trigger a full-scale regional war, with unimaginable consequences. And if we are going to stop it, we need to shift public attention from North Korean intentions to US intensions, because it is the US that is leading this spiral.

North Korea has, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, sought direct negotiations with the United States. It wanted to sign a peace treaty ending the Korean war as a step towards normalisation of relations. But the US has refused to engage in such negotiations.

There are several reasons for its reluctance. The North Korean threat has greatly benefited the US military-industrial complex, justifying funding for the development of a range of expensive and profitable weapons systems. It provides a useful rationale for keeping US bases and troops in both Japan and South Korea, close to China as well as North Korea. The continuing threat also helps to bolster the political standing of pro-US conservative parties in both countries.

Thus, the US has only been willing to meet with North Korea if the agenda was limited to when and how North Korea will end its nuclear programme and destroy its weapons. But such a demand has been a nonstarter for North Korea.

It was the US, not North Korea, that brought nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula, in 1958. They were repeatedly used to threaten North Korea, decades before North Korea began its own nuclear programme, in violation of the principles of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. And now North Korea faces a US-dominated alliance of well-armed hostile countries. While annual military spending is close to $900bn in the US and approximately $40bn in South Korea, North Korea, according to US State Department estimates, spends only $4bn (12). Unilaterally denuclearising must appear suicidal to North Korean leaders. Does this mean North Korea is a threat to peace?

(1) Robert L Carlin and Siegfried S Hecker, ‘Is Kim Jong Un Preparing for War?’, 38 North, 11 January 2024

(2) Edward Wong and Julian E Barnes, ‘US is watching North Korea for signs of lethal military action’, The New York Times, 25 January 2024.

(6) ‘In Name Only: the United Nations Command and US Unilateralism in Korea’, Korea Policy Institute, 1 July 2020,

(8) Kim Han-joo, ‘Yoon orders military to retaliate first, report later in case of enemy attacks’, Yonhap News Agency, 28 December 2023.

(10) Suh Jae-jung, ‘SK-US spring exercises usually prompt drills by North – this time, it’s focused on potato farming instead’, Hankyoreh, 12 March 2024.

(11) Demetri Sevastopulo and Kana Inagaki, ‘US and Japan plan biggest upgrade to security pact in over 60 years’, Financial Times, London, 24 March 2024,

(12) Kim Tong-hyung, ‘North Korea passes new defense budget’, Defense News, 19 January 2023.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is Professor Emeritus of Economics, Lewis and Clark College, US, author of several books on Korea and the political economy of East Asia, and a board member of the Korea Policy Institute.


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