Kim Jong Un’s hostile rhetoric reflects North Korea’s warming relations with Russia and China

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) meets with his North Korean counterpart Choe Son Hui (L) in Moscow on 16 January 2024. (Photo by Russian Foreign Ministry / Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) meets with his North Korean counterpart Choe Son Hui (L) in Moscow on 16 January 2024. (Photo by Russian Foreign Ministry / Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Recent rhetoric from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un strongly suggests that his country will adopt a more aggressive foreign policy this year. Kim began the new year by warning South Korea and the US of his country’s readiness for war and threatened to use nuclear weapons in the event.

Although direct war on the Korean Peninsula looks unlikely this year, it would be wrong to dismiss Kim’s words entirely. North Korean provocations towards South Korea and the US will probably escalate beyond previous years – especially given the US presidential election in November – and Kim will wish to emphasize North Korea’s status as a nuclear-armed state.

Crucially for the West, Pyongyang’s relations with Moscow and Beijing are also likely to strengthen, with far-reaching implications on regional and global stability.

A nuclear North Korea

In an alarming speech at a meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly – North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament – on 15 January, Kim Jong Un stressed how in the event of any war, North Korea would ‘totally destroy’ South Korea and ‘inflict an unimaginably crushing defeat on the US’.

Not only did he reject the reunification of the two Koreas as a goal; he also announced that his country’s constitution would be rewritten, allowing the territory of South Korea to be ‘incorporated’ into the North in the event of war. Kim also underscored that North Korea would use its nuclear capabilities offensively if its ‘enemies ignite a war’.

North Korea frequently uses aggressive language as part of its strategy of brinkmanship, especially when denigrating South Korea and the US as ‘hostile powers’. Such discourse targets domestic and international audiences, particularly in stoking domestic support for the Kim regime.

But these recent announcements reflect a shift from North Korea’s historic goal of reunifying the Korean Peninsula under Pyongyang’s control. The North now views South Korea as a foreign power instead of part of a single but divided Korea. Kim’s rhetoric also underlines North Korea’s self-confidence in its perception as a nuclear-armed state, which has no intention of denuclearizing.

Nevertheless, Kim Jong Un knows the consequences of war with South Korea and the US. Any conflict, let alone one involving nuclear weapons, would lead to the destruction of his regime.

However, this will not stop Pyongyang from using bellicose rhetoric and actions, taking advantage of the inability in international institutions, not least the United Nations Security Council, to constrain its behaviour.

Already this year, North Korea has opened artillery fire towards the Northern Limit Line, the disputed maritime border between the two Koreas. Given advancements in North Korea’s weapons capabilities over the past year, particularly its ballistic missiles, we should not be surprised if the North heightens brinkmanship in the coming months, perhaps with a seventh nuclear test – although given North Korea’s past behaviour in US election years, it may choose to postpone until after the result is known.

A new strategic triangle?

Most concerningly, North Korea’s actions also affect regional and global security. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, ties between Moscow and Pyongyang have warmed considerably.

Earlier this week, North Korean Foreign Minister, Choe Son Hui, visited Moscow for talks with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and Russian President, Vladimir Putin, where the two states reaffirmed their mutual support.

Following Kim Jong Un’s summit with Putin in Russia, last September, we should not be surprised if Putin reciprocates in 2024. It is not known if there has been any formalized arms deal between the two states. This possibility, however, cannot be ruled out, especially given evidence of North Korea supplying artillery to aid Russia’s war in Ukraine over the past year. That the two states are becoming more closely aligned highlights the prospect of an emerging anti-Western global coalition.

China, a natural leading player in such a coalition, is by far North Korea’s largest trading partner. Historically, it has exerted far greater political influence over North Korea than Russia, particularly in assisting the North evade multilateral and unilateral sanctions.

China will not want to feel excluded from having a say in any dramatic changes in North Korean foreign policy posture and the ramifications on the East Asian region, especially since it was a signatory to the Korean War Armistice Agreement of 1953.

Whilst Kim Jong Un last met Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019, the recent spate of high-level meetings between North Korean and Russian officials could lead to Xi Jinping seeking to meet Kim this year – and reinforce China’s importance to North Korea – especially with the impending US presidential election and the possibility of a second Trump administration in Washington.

Although Chinese officials have maintained that China ultimately seeks North Korea’s denuclearization, North Korea’s resoluteness has restricted China’s ability to persuade Kim Jong Un to do so. That said, the Chinese government ultimately prioritizes stability on its border with the North.

Nevertheless, any North Korean decision to go to war would undoubtedly affect China and Russia. With both states currently preoccupied with their own foreign policy concerns, Beijing and Moscow are likely to dissuade Kim from crossing the red line just yet.

Any solution to North Korea’s growing aggression, however, remains elusive. Kim Jong Un’s renewed hostile demonstrations may well resurrect questions of South Korea pursuing its own nuclear deterrent (though last year South Korean President, Yoon Suk-yeol, downplayed the possibility, when he met US President Joe Biden in Washington, DC).

Should a trilateral summit between the Foreign Ministers of Japan, South Korea, and China go ahead this year, it will be difficult for it to reach a consensus on Pyongyang’s behaviour, given China’s opposition to recent trilateral cooperation between the US, South Korea, and Japan.

Due to North Korea’s unpredictability at a time of wider geopolitical change, the US and its allies should continue to fulfill previous bilateral and trilateral pledges, and strengthen their alliances in Northeast Asia.

If they are to succeed in deterring an increasingly aggressive North Korea, it is vital that historically volatile bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea do not deteriorate.

In line with the Camp David Summit held last August, between the US, Japan, and South Korea, all three states should strengthen dialogue in adopting concrete steps to addressing North Korea’s nuclear development, its engagement in cyberwarfare, and ongoing human rights violations.

These issues are numerous, but tackling them can only be done by a common, unified approach.

Dr Edward Howell, Korea Foundation Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme.

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