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[Wang Son-taek] When ‘misreading’ met ‘misleading’

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 11, 2024 - 05:36

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On the earliest days of the new year of 2024, South and North Korean military forces have conducted artillery drills in the West Sea, causing an anxious atmosphere in which residents must evacuate.

Notably, there are concerns over the situation since it was right after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made hostile remarks against the South at a plenary session of the Workers' Party late last year. As the South has also made violent remarks against the North, a confrontational structure in which hard-line policies collide has been formed, and the possibility of armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula has increased.

The current situation was expected to be an extension of the escalation of tensions between the two Koreas since November last year when they scrapped the Sept. 19 military agreement. If left unchecked, chances are high that armed conflict between the two Koreas will unfold. It's time to find a way to ease the escalation of military tensions.

Finding the cause and background of the deterioration of the situation is a prerequisite for finding an answer. Looking at the vicious cycle of military tensions since late last year, we should pay attention to the situation in which there is no communication between the two Koreas, and misunderstandings and misjudgments continue due to misreading and misleading.

South Korea must pay attention to the misreading of Kim Jong-un’s remarks. He said that the inter-Korean relationship is not a particular relation of the same ethnic people, but only two warring countries that fight each other. The comments that unification is impossible are also drawing attention. He urged North Korean elites to step up preparations for a cataclysm to subdue the entire southern half of the peninsular. In response, South Korean media assessed that Kim Jong-un has fundamentally changed his South Korean policy line. However, such an assessment is based on the overlooked fact that North Korea can't give up reunification and change the relationship between the two countries.

According to the North Korean narrative, they have a worldview that it was forcibly occupied by the southern part of the Korean Peninsula under the invasion of a strong external imperialist country, the United States. Therefore, North Korea suggested that the national goal should be to ultimately unify the two Koreas by removing US troops from the Korean Peninsula.

The Kim family then theorizes that a strong leader-centered dictatorship is inevitable for North Korea to win the war against the United States, a formidable military powerhouse. This is the national logic to accomplish the mission of the Juche Revolution, which is North Korea's national goal. Chairman Kim Jong-un's legitimacy of power will instantly disappear, and significant political upheaval will occur in North Korea if North Korea accepts the two-state system.

It is also necessary to analyze precisely the words that unification is impossible. According to Kim's remarks, the South Korean leaders have defined North Korea as the main enemy, have colluded with foreign powers and seek absorptive reunification, so the efforts for inter-Korean unification claimed by the North have yet to be fruitful. In other words, if North Korea is not defined as the main enemy, does not collude with foreign powers and does not pursue absorptive reunification, it may be subject to reconciliation and unification.

Chairman Kim Jong-un's words about stepping up preparations for a cataclysm to subdue all territories in the southern half of the country are contradictory to the previous sentences. If inter-Korean relations are defined as two-state relations, South Korea is a foreign country, and leveling foreign territories is a unilateral invasion. This statement reflects that Chairman Kim sees South Korea as an object of unification.

In South Korea, misreading North Korea's foreign policy stance is a problem, and in North Korea, misleading is a side effect of a diagrammatic approach to foreign policy.

Chairman Kim Jong-un is expected to create a new cold war structure in which Korea-US, Japan, and North Korea-China-Russia cooperation are at odds in Northeast Asia, watching Russia's invasion of Ukraine and strategic competition between the US and China. However, the US-China relationship seeks a way of coexistence at the level of strategic competition, not hegemony competition. It is difficult for China to support anti-American solidarity along with North Korea and Russia actively. Russia will not completely give up the possibility of economic cooperation with South Korea after the war with Ukraine is over.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s efforts to make the possession of nuclear weapons a fait accompli through the new cold war diplomacy and to effectively neutralize the international economic sanctions system against the North are also part of the misjudgment. First, the US would have a big hole in maintaining its military hegemony if the Nonproliferation Treaty regime collapses. Given that the North Korean nuclear issue has not been resolved for more than 30 years, giving up the mission of denuclearization and holding disarmament talks is an unacceptable scenario in the US situation. With this scenario, the US could send a message to anti-US rogue states in the global community that if they survive the nuclear weapons program for 30 years, they will be recognized as possessing nuclear weapons.

When the misreading and misleading meet, the South and the North fall into a vicious cycle as they have to adopt a hardline policy. In this situation, neighboring countries do not suffer losses, and only the South and the North are pursuing self-inflicting policies. The best way would be for the South and the North to expand mutual understanding through communication and dialogue and appropriately mix hard and moderate policies instead of one-sided hard-line policies. The top leaders of the South and the North should review the calculation of inter-Korean relations again to develop a mutually beneficial scenario.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at the Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.