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Korean Tensions: An Unexpected Pause in an Uncertain Time
Korean Tensions: An Unexpected Pause in an Uncertain Time
North Korea Plots a Course of “Heavy Agony” for 2022
North Korea Plots a Course of “Heavy Agony” for 2022
A view of an explosion of a joint liaison office with South Korea in border town Kaesong, North Korea in this picture supplied by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on June 16, 2020. KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Commentary / Asia

Korean Tensions: An Unexpected Pause in an Uncertain Time

On 24 June, Pyongyang abruptly stopped threats it had been making at Seoul for weeks, although the underpinnings of inter-Korean friction remain. Peninsular tensions could stay on simmer or escalate depending on how the parties manage an uncertain time before the U.S. election.

After weeks of ratcheting up tensions on the Korean peninsula, including lodging near-daily threats against South Korea in reaction to some of its citizens sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border, North Korea has decided to pause. On 24 June, North Korean state media reported that Kim Jong-un opted to defer plans to take certain military actions, after considering an unspecified “prevailing situation” during a virtual preliminary meeting of the Worker’s Party Central Military Commission over which he presided.

For now, one can only guess at the reasons for the sudden pause. Did reported U.S. B-52 bomber flyovers near Japan on 24 June, coupled with three U.S. aircraft carriers operating in the region, deter North Korea? Did Seoul or even Beijing make a backdoor deal with Pyongyang to provide aid in exchange for the pause? Did Kim feel that he had vented enough frustration about the leaflets and decide to pace himself until the U.S. presidential election? Or perhaps North Korea never intended to take the calibrated military actions it had threatened in the first place.

There is always the risk of miscalculation that could trigger an inadvertent and dangerous escalation.

Whatever the case may be, the reasons why North Korea escalated tensions have not dissipated. The regime remains frustrated, though it remains unclear how it will channel these feelings. Pyongyang may simply be waiting to see what Seoul and Washington do before deciding on its next move, keeping tensions simmering on the peninsula – for domestic political purposes and to gain leverage in any future negotiations – until after the U.S. election. Even so, and although Pyongyang’s threats and demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office on its side of the border on 16 June appear to have been undertaken mainly for their shock value, there is always the risk of miscalculation that could trigger an inadvertent and dangerous escalation. Pyongyang might also abruptly engage in confrontational actions during what appears to be a quiet time – something it has done in the past. Beijing, Seoul, Washington and other countries with an interest in stability on the Korean peninsula should be prepared for all these scenarios during this uncertain period.

Calibrated Threats and, Almost, a Leaflet War

On 17 June, North Korea’s military announced that it was studying plans to deploy soldiers and “firepower sub-units” to the Mount Kumgang tourism area and Kaesong industrial zone, restore guard posts at the demilitarised zone, deploy artillery units and troops to the “front lines” (near or around the border) and conduct exercises there, and provide military assistance for “scattering leaflets against the south”. Kim Jong-un’s influential sister, Kim Yo-jong, also threatened to scrap the 2018 inter-Korean military agreement to cease hostilities on land, air and sea.

A close look at these possible plans reveals that none would pose physical harm to South Korea. Arguably, Kim might have opted for a pause precisely because he concluded there was little to gain from moving forward with plans that he realised would have minimal impact. After all, the Mount Kumgang tours and Kaesong Industrial Complex have been shut down since 2008 and 2016, respectively. Remilitarising the demilitarised zone and sending military forces to the “front lines” would expose North Korean troop positions. Scattering fliers across South Korea would do no damage to people or property.

Pyongyang’s threatened leaflet war was expected to kick off around the 70th anniversary of the Korean War on 25 June. It was interrupted, however, by Korea’s rainy season and winds blowing from south to north that are common during the summer. (Early summer tends to be when South Korean activists and North Korean defectors float anti-Kim messages northward in balloons that also contain information about the outside world and democracy, while North Koreans typically send their propaganda fliers in the winter when wind currents blow south.) Pictures of the North Korean materials released by state media show a defaced image of South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Scribbling on the face of its leader was aiming for South Korea’s jugular in the eyes of the North, where doing the same to Chairman Kim would be viewed as an unforgivable insult.

North Korea’s declaration of a “leaflet war” against South Korea may seem silly to the outside world. But to Pyongyang, the information South Korean fliers convey, and the way in which they counter regime propaganda directed at the North’s people, are most threatening. In her 17 June statement, Kim’s sister said the South Korean bulletins “dared defame the dignity of our supreme leadership, our Chairman whom we hold most sacred as the central core, and mocked at all our people at the same time”.

Against this backdrop, the announcement of preparations to bombard South Korea with millions of paper fliers may have been intended primarily to boost morale at home and to shore up internal unity. While not necessarily a cause for concern in the South, the move likely would have been well received by North Korean elites who are Kim’s key constituents. To retain power, Kim needs to be attentive to domestic political objectives including maintaining regime legitimacy, diverting attention from the country’s domestic policy failures and satisfying his constituents.

Behind the Rage

North Korea’s justification for ramping up tensions was what it sees as broken promises and hostile acts by South Korea. According to North Korean media, Pyongyang rejected Seoul’s 15 June offer to send a special envoy to smooth over tensions, demanding actions rather than words. But behind the rage appears to be a North Korean leadership desperate to find solutions for the country’s economic difficulties.

Pyongyang’s proximate reason for threatening South Korea was the leaflets, which it saw as violating a prior commitment. The two Korean leaders had agreed in their 2018 Panmunjom Declaration to cease “as of May 1 this year … all hostile acts and eliminating their means, including broadcasting through loudspeakers and distribution of leaflets, in the areas along the Military Demarcation Line”. The Moon government ended loudspeaker broadcasts, but for two years has been unable to stop South Koreans from sending fliers. When Kim Yo-jong publicly demanded a legal ban on leaflets, the Moon government and ruling-party lawmakers vowed to prosecute and take legal action against activist groups. This response was met with harsh domestic and international criticism that such actions would violate South Koreans’ constitutional rights and democratic freedoms.

Pyongyang evidently judged Seoul’s promises insufficient, proceeding to demolish the inter-Korean liaison office. Destroying the liaison office was a symbolic and calculated move. The office was of no unique value to Kim – cross-border communications are possible without it – but it was the prized symbol of Moon’s engagement policy and cost South Korean taxpayers about 9.7 billion won ($8.6 million). It was not functioning properly due to strained relations, was vacant because of the pandemic, and was located in North Korean territory. Pyongyang knew the explosion would not invite retaliation as it was not an attack on South Korea.

At the core of recent threats and building destruction is the regime’s apparent frustration over its domestic difficulties.

Beyond the leaflets, at the core of recent threats and building destruction is the regime’s apparent frustration over its domestic difficulties. The North’s economic stagnation, which started with post-2016 international sanctions intended to pressure it to return to diplomatic negotiations and to dry up funding for its nuclear weapons program, was unexpectedly compounded by the pandemic. The pandemic has halted nearly all trade with China, which had been Pyongyang’s most trusted lifeline, enabling the regime until now to defy collapse in the face of famines, natural disasters, sanctions and other challenges.

The best way for the regime to divert attention from Kim’s performance at home is to deflect his constituents’ gaze outward. Placing blame on the virus itself could be harder: it would not fit the regime’s self-legitimising narrative, which holds sanctions responsible for the country’s economic woes, or match Pyongyang’s official position that COVID-19 has not infected any North Koreans. Moreover, Pyongyang may want to avoid possibly annoying Beijing, which might see blaming the virus as a way of subtly pointing to the trade slowdown with China as the source of North Korea’s economic difficulties. Instead, it is easier to take the traditional route of placing the onus on sanctions, and easier still to target South Korea than to take on the U.S., which holds the cards regarding North Korea’s future.

At the same time, North Korean statements for over a year, taken together, suggest that Pyongyang feels betrayed by Seoul’s confident assertions that it could persuade Washington to relax some sanctions and allow the beginning of cross-border economic projects. The September 2018 Pyongyang Joint Declaration between the two Korean leaders stipulates that Pyongyang was willing to dismantle nuclear facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex “as the United States takes corresponding measures in accordance with the spirit of the June 12 U.S.-DPRK Joint Statement” that resulted from the historic Singapore summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump. But five months later, Kim discovered at the follow-up summit in Hanoi that the Trump administration was not willing to trade the sanctions relief he was seeking for Yongbyon.

Against this backdrop, Kim is now increasing pressure on the South, implying (however fancifully) that Seoul could persuade Washington to lift sanctions by placing a higher priority on the pursuit of pan-Korean nationalism – something Moon has promised to do – even at the expense of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. North Korea might be taking a breather at the moment, but Moon is still faced with one of the most serious predicaments of his single-term presidency. His dream of inter-Korean rapprochement and peace is in crisis. Moon will try to please both Pyongyang and Washington unless one side or the other gives him no option but to choose. Maintaining this balance will not be politically easy, as Moon’s nationalist supporters want him to privilege inter-Korean ties over all else, especially because they blame Washington for soured Korean relations. It will bolster their case if Trump continues to pressure Seoul to pay more for hosting U.S. troops or makes a flippant remark that makes the quiet undercurrent of anti-American sentiment in South Korea erupt.

Tensions until November

On 24 June, Pyongyang stressed that it had merely suspended its military plans, and not cancelled them, warning that it could always “reconsider” the postponement. While the tone of the statement in Korean was subdued, it nevertheless raises the question of whether the world will witness a North Korean “October surprise” that would destabilise the peninsula in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election.

While that possibility cannot be excluded, North Korea’s interests might point it in a different direction. Pyongyang likely would prefer Trump’s re-election because the president has shown such personal interest in making a deal with Kim. This preference would presumably lead it to refrain from actions that would not only risk a harsh response from Washington but could also highlight that Trump’s negotiations with Kim have met with little success (notwithstanding his earlier boasts to the contrary) and confront him with a foreign policy crisis in advance of the November polls. Pyongyang will also likely be prudent enough to avoid any act that could result in South Korean injuries or casualties, since Seoul would almost certainly retaliate in kind. That said, there is always a risk of miscalculation.

Still, Pyongyang might take other provocative measures – including testing weapons, firing artillery or other shows of force. Steps like these are not always aimed at grabbing Washington’s attention. Often, Pyongyang is driven by domestic political objectives, military imperatives relating to perfection of its weaponry, or the desire to commemorate milestones such as the 75th anniversary of its Workers’ Party in October. Pyongyang might also take such actions to send a message – for example, to protest U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, including those scheduled for August, which Moon also promised to end in his 2018 agreement with Kim. In virtually all these cases, an overarching goal is to create divisions between the U.S. and its regional allies and maintain tensions on the Korean peninsula for leverage in any future negotiations, which seem unlikely to resume until after the U.S. election.

Washington and Seoul will need to engage in a delicate dance that avoids providing any pretext for North Korea to act out militarily, while sustaining readiness and deterrence.

Until then, Washington and Seoul will need to engage in a delicate dance that avoids providing any pretext for North Korea to act out militarily, while sustaining readiness and deterrence on the Korean peninsula and seeking opportunities to advance nuclear negotiations. In this spirit, the Trump administration should continue to express interest in diplomacy even as it and other governments continue to enforce UN sanctions. Countries with influence over North Korea and an interest in peninsular stability, starting with China, should continue to call on Pyongyang to refrain from escalation and instead engage in dialogue. Furthermore, if Pyongyang nevertheless takes potentially destabilising steps, Washington and Seoul should have a game plan for responding in a measured way; in particular, they should signal that they will beef up joint military drills if Pyongyang escalates.

Through these measures, the parties can serve their mutual interest in promoting peninsular and regional stability while managing the security situation during an uncertain time.

Workers plant rice at the Chongsan Cooperative Farm in the Kangso district of Nampho City on 12 May 2020. KIM Won Jin / AFP
Q&A / Asia

North Korea Plots a Course of “Heavy Agony” for 2022

The latest five-day plenum of North Korea’s ruling party focused on food insecurity, chief among the nation’s challenges. With the pandemic not yet tamed and other uncertainty on the international scene, Pyongyang may continue refraining from major provocations into 2022, but for how long is unclear.

North Korea has just completed its annual review of its own performance at the fourth plenum of the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party, held from 27-31 December 2021. What can we learn from this exercise about the state of the country?

Under Kim Jong-un, Pyongyang politics tick along on a system of five-year “congresses”, the most recent of which was held in January 2021 (and should run to 2026). These five-year cycles are then punctuated by fairly regular plenums, including the one that ended on 31 December. What we got in a lengthy article on 1 January was a report on that plenum, which amounts to a kind of annual review of the party’s performance, and an indicator of the challenges it has identified for the year ahead.

What happened this time is a little different from the usual modus operandi. Under previous chiefs and in Kim Jong-un’s pre-pandemic era, the North Korean leader would deliver a new year’s address either on television or via an editorial in state-run newspapers, and these would mark a waypoint in the country’s politics. In 2022, all we got was a report on Kim Jong-un’s contribution to the plenum; it was a comma compared to the full stops of years past.

The report gave little hope for immediate improvement ... as Kim [Jong-un] mentioned a ‘heavy yet responsible agony’ for the period to come.

It’s difficult to interpret exactly what this means and what new, if anything, has been decided by the five-day plenum. For one thing, the full text of Kim’s speech was not published, and for another, the signals it gave were rather mixed. There was abundant rhetoric about successes and breakthroughs as usual, but all suffused with a sense of insufficiency. Of one thing we can be relatively certain: 2021 was another tough year, in particular due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact. Perhaps not quite as tough as 2020, when the coronavirus first triggered fear, border closings and a steep economic downturn, but still very challenging. The report gave little hope for immediate improvement, either, as Kim mentioned a “heavy yet responsible agony” for the period to come.

From what was revealed, it appears the party hasn’t been able to make much progress toward the goals of the five-year economic plan outlined in January 2021. Although it is impossible to conclusively verify from the outside what is happening on the ground, the lack of progress must be clearly visible to the citizenry, many of whom will have seen no sign of promised improvements to “food, clothing, and housing” in a year during which COVID-19 containment measures have suffocated economic activity. But, as discussed below, it’s hard to tell exactly how much the country is suffering or, indeed, upon whom the burden is mainly falling.

Given the concern expressed in the plenum report about farming, we can assume a degree of difficulty for many North Koreans in getting food – either because it is in short supply or because market prices are out of reach for people who have seen their incomes fall. Kim delivered a long speech on what he called “our-style socialist rural development”, or in other words, what needs to be done to improve the agricultural system and bring North Korea closer to meeting the population’s food requirements. As always, the reported speech included a large measure of ideological conditioning of farmers and no shortage of exhortations for agricultural labourers to work harder. But it also touched upon agricultural modernisation and policies to remedy the worst effects of climate change, notably on production of North Korea’s staple crop, rice. It all indicates considerable concern for the state of the country’s agricultural performance.

How bad is the situation for ordinary people in North Korea?

From border regions – which are more accessible to outsiders thanks to cross-border cellular communications, and which we use as a rough proxy for other parts of the country outside Pyongyang – there is plentiful evidence of people facing difficulties in their daily lives. Because of a de facto zero-COVID-19 policy, the country’s border with China has been closed since January 2020, meaning large-scale cross-border trade and flows of people have stopped almost completely. The little reporting that has emerged from the North suggests that the closure has affected incomes, and thus demand seems to have switched from relatively costly rice to the cheaper alternative, corn, while market prices for manufactured goods have risen markedly as supplies dwindle. These phenomena have led to rising levels of poverty and food insecurity. North Korea’s northern neighbour and ally China may well already be sending humanitarian supplies, but if so, it is doing so (as ever) without fanfare, and it is impossible to identify who the beneficiaries are. Whatever the case, humanitarian assistance is no substitute for the restoration of cross-border trade.

North Korea is, however, nowhere near the famine that struck in the period 1995-1997, when as many as a million people may have perished. Back then, Pyongyang was forced to beg for international aid and had to open up its borders to deliveries of food and observers. Under Kim Jong-un since 2011, Pyongyang has taken significant steps toward deepening existing market mechanisms in the economy, even if in recent years it has sought to restore more state controls. The market economy as it is now constituted makes outright famine much less likely than it was in the 1990s, when the population’s reliance on the state’s rapidly disintegrating rationing system left millions at risk of starvation.

What have we learned about how Kim Jong-un has consolidated power over the last ten years?

Before Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, suffered a stroke in the summer of 2008, he had greatly enfeebled the ruling party. In his heyday, the elder Kim ran an autocratic dictatorship in which the executive implemented decisions and the party rubber-stamped them, at best. When he took power in 2011 after a period of co-rule, Kim Jong-un didn’t have the authority to do that, and therefore needed to bring existing elites along with him in a way that his father did not. As a result, he emphasised the role of the party as the organ of decision-making and administration, with the cabinet as the overseer of the economy. By regularising the role of party congresses and plenums, he seems to have invited a measure of collective, if mostly top-down, discussion among officials at the national, regional and local levels, as well as among those working in industry. In a recent visual indication of this institutionalising trend, Kim Jong-un has overseen the removal of some images of his father and grandfather from public spaces, replacing them with party symbols.

But this modest commitment to collective rule doesn’t make much difference to the governing system’s coherence: Kim Jong-un remains supreme leader, and he has now placed faithful lieutenants in all the key party and cabinet positions, freeing him from having to rely excessively on members of his father’s team to rule. In other words, there is still no sign of change in North Korea’s underlying personalist power structure, and since the brutal elimination of Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek in December 2013, also no indication of the emergence of anyone with an independent power base or the potential to construct one. If the regime can survive COVID-19 – which it has done so far, at least – it’s hard to see what could trip it up in the short to medium term.

Does the plenum report mean that North Korea will be focused on its internal problems in the coming year, and not on provoking the outside world?

It seems clear that North Korea plans to be internally focused in 2022. The plenum report didn’t mention military or foreign policy matters in any detail. Instead, it focused on the domestic economy, particularly agriculture. This is not, in all likelihood, because the leader wants to focus on agriculture, but because he has to: ensuring the country’s food security remains a major challenge. There’s also much uncertainty in the outside world, which could counsel a wait-and-see approach before Kim makes any major moves. South Korean elections in early March will result in a new leader for North Korea’s most direct rival. COVID-19 could wane, but it could also become an even bigger distraction.

Kim [Jong-un] continues to build and improve Pyongyang’s arsenal.

In any event, Kim continues to build and improve Pyongyang’s arsenal. He laid out the party’s priorities for military strengthening a year ago at the Eighth Congress, when launching the current planning cycle. These priorities, which continue to guide North Korea, were listed as: to keep developing nuclear technology, including tactical and “super-sized” warheads; to achieve accurate delivery of missiles within a radius of 15,000km (that is, the whole territory of the United States); to design hypersonic gliding flight warheads; to advance plans for solid-fuel intercontinental missiles; to possess a nuclear submarine and underwater-launch strategic nuclear weapon; to launch a military reconnaissance satellite; and to build reconnaissance drones with a 500km range (that is, the whole territory of South Korea).

Some of these goals are still remote. But in pursuit of others, North Korea has already done some new, high-profile military testing in 2021 and now also in 2022, including a launch on 5 January of what it claims was a hypersonic missile (possibly of the same make that was shown off at the country’s Self-Defence 2021 exhibition in October). There will certainly be more testing in the year to come, though the tempo and intensity could be affected by what happens with the pandemic and, correspondingly, the country’s economic health.

Does the plenum report suggest more of the same on the Korean peninsula for 2022?

On the whole, yes. But it is noteworthy that the plenum report quotes Kim Jong-un as saying that, as North Korea enters 2022, “we came to know what we can do”. This sentence seems to indicate he feels the country enjoys a degree of stability that was not there at the end of 2020, and that it is now a bit easier for North Korea to plan its international strategy. But it is not a statement of outright confidence, particularly given the unpredictable progress of the pandemic, which overshadows everything.

As best we can tell, North Korea's zero-COVID-19 policy has so far done a reasonably good job of controlling the virus. But the cornerstone of this strategy was sealing off its land borders. The closures have led not just to food insecurity and precipitously declining trade volumes, but also to the departure of much of Pyongyang’s diplomatic and NGO community, which opted to withdraw staff rather than operate under unworkable restrictions on freedom of movement into, out of and inside the country. Repeatedly, North Korea has seemed on the verge of reopening its borders to overland trade, but resurgences of the virus appear to have forced it to delay the measure and rely instead on modest volumes of goods coming into the west coast port of Nampo. There is now talk of a fresh attempt, but that seems unlikely in light of the omicron variant. Each new iteration of the pandemic poses potentially huge risks to a country that has rejected all attempts to supply it with effective vaccines.

The border closure will necessarily continue to affect all North Korea’s economic plans. Indeed, even the modest goal of upgrading the agricultural sector will involve imports of machinery, parts and chemical fertilisers. Any concerted new program of military testing will need hard currency, for which the only good source is trade with China.

What do current conditions mean for our understanding of North Korea?

Due to the pandemic and border closure, we presently know even less about what’s happening inside North Korea than usual. There are few diplomats, businesspeople, tourists or aid workers left. Organisations that maintain networks of citizen journalists inside North Korea or who rely on networks of resettled North Koreans in Seoul have less reporting to work with. These gaps directly affect how much information we have about the situation in the country, and the capacity to cross-reference anecdotal reports coming from the ground. The reopening of overland trade is a classic example. There are a handful of superficially plausible reports that the borders are going to reopen in January, but they’re very hard to cross-check.

For now, it seems likely that because of COVID-19, North Korea has for some time not been in a strong position to “provoke” the outside world as it has often done in the past. There is little to indicate that it has really wanted to, either, though that may be more a consequence of the pandemic forcing the state to review its priorities than its leadership’s tactical preferences. But the 5 January missile test is a reminder that we will be hearing from Pyongyang again.