Missiles, enemies, alliances, satellites: The Korean Peninsula’s tempestuous 2023

Posted on : 2023-12-31 09:29 KST Modified on : 2023-12-31 09:36 KST
There’s been little evidence of the “peace” that Yoon has said he will achieve “through strength” this year


This photo, released by North Korean state media, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un joined by his daughter, Kim Ju-ae, as he watches the launch of the Hwasong-18 solid-fuel ICBM on Dec. 18. (KCNA/Yonhap)
This photo, released by North Korean state media, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un joined by his daughter, Kim Ju-ae, as he watches the launch of the Hwasong-18 solid-fuel ICBM on Dec. 18. (KCNA/Yonhap)

The security situation on the Korean Peninsula this year was characterized by rising military tensions due to the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s “peace through strength” policy and North Korea’s response of meeting strength with strength. 
Despite the lack of war and military clashes, it is hard to find much evidence of Yoon’s supposed “peace” this year. 
On New Year’s Day, North Korea launched a short-range ballistic missile with a flight range of about 400 kilometers. On Jan. 16, the Ministry of National Defense revived the description of the North Korean government and the North Korean military as South Korea’s “enemy” in its newly released 2022 white paper.
The North Korean system equates the regime and the military to the state itself.  North Korea promptly announced the designation of South Korea as its “main enemy.”
Regular joint South Korea-US military exercises were held in March and August on unprecedented scales under the new name of “Ulchi Freedom Shield,” and joint exercises of various sizes as well as South Korean military exercises continued throughout the year.
US strategic assets, including aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and nuclear bombers, have been deployed to the Korean Peninsula on a nearly full-time basis, and trilateral naval exercises and missile interception drills have not been limited to exercises between South Korea and the US, but to South Korea, the US and Japan.
North Korea responded primarily with missile launches. By the end of the year, it had conducted dozens of drills and made clear its intention to equip short-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, submarines, and submarines with nuclear warheads in addition to intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the US mainland.
Seoul’s antagonism toward Beijing, Moscow helped Pyongyang

The “power” that the Yoon administration is relying on as its means for peace is derived from US nuclear assets and trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the US and Japan.
On Aug. 18, the first formal trilateral summit between South Korea, the US and Japan was held at Camp David. There, the leaders of the three countries adopted two documents titled the “Camp David Principles” and “The Spirit of Camp David,” in which they pledged cooperation for peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world, the creation of specific consultative bodies, deterrence of expansion, joint exercises, and strengthening of economic security. They also released a separate document pledging to consult on these issues.
Through the agreements at Camp David, the US finally succeeded in binding Japan, a country that shares its strategic interests, and the sycophantic Yoon Suk-yeol administration, which is notably compliant with both the US and Japan, together. By doing so, the US turned the cooperation between the three countries into an absolute, verifiable, irreversible de facto alliance.
Natural follow-ups include the unrestricted deployment of US strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula and military cooperation between the three countries, such as joint military exercises, that are targeting not only North Korea but also China and Russia.
On Sept. 13, less than a month after the trilateral summit, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin met at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur, Russia.
Although no official statement was issued at the summit — which also marked the two country’s first meeting in four and a half years — it is clear that the two parties decided to strengthen cooperation in the military and economic fields.
As for military cooperation, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had already visited North Korea to hold important working-level meetings on July 27, the anniversary of the armistice that paused the Korean War. 

The cooperative arrangement between North Korea and Russia is very likely to be one in which the former provides weapons and other forms of military support to the latter for its war in Ukraine, with Russia agreeing to provide the North with advanced military technology. More details are also expected to emerge in the future on plans for joint military exercises and military personnel exchanges.

Practical economic cooperation is also being pursued as a follow-up to the North Korea-Russia summit. On Nov. 14 to 16, the Russian minister of natural resources visited Pyongyang for a North Korea-Russia intergovernmental commission on economic affairs.

During that visit, the two sides signed a protocol to encourage cooperative efforts in various areas, including trade, economy, science, and technology. In a separate interview, the minister made reference to the need to boost tourism as well.

On Dec. 11 to 15, the governor of Russia’s Primorsky Krai region paid a visit to Pyongyang and had a meeting with the North Korean minister of external economic relations, where they were said to have discussed issues toward ushering the regional economic cooperation between the two countries to a higher level.

If the North Korea-Russia cooperation enters full swing and the traditional friendly relationship between North Korea and China expands into practical cooperation, North Korea is very likely to emerge — at least in a limited sense — as a presence in the international community and participant in international organizations as it breaks through the Western blockade and sanctions and resolves into domestic economic and livelihood-related issues. In effect, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration will have contributed to benefiting North Korea with its excessive diplomatic focus on the US and Japan and its essentially antagonistic policies toward China and Russia.

Negative sum game between South and North Korea

After two failed attempts in May and August, North Korea succeeded on Nov. 21 in launching its Malligyong-1 satellite, using a Chollima-1 rocket to do so.

Compared with two other satellites that successfully entered orbit in the past — the Kwangmyongsong-3 Unit 2 in 2012 and the Kwangmyongsong-4 in 2016 — the latest satellite was large enough to carry reconnaissance equipment, and North Korea claimed to have used it to film the White House, Pentagon, and other locations in the continental US as well as overseas US military bases.

North Korea’s military reconnaissance satellite has the potential to further “complete” its military armament and the resulting deterrent effect. It appears certain that North Korea will continue with additional reconnaissance satellite launches in 2024, along with improvements to its reconnaissance equipment performance.

The day after North Korea successfully launched its satellite, South Korea suspended Article 1(3) of the two sides’ comprehensive military agreement from September 2018. The provision in question established a no-fly zone to the north and south of the Military Demarcation Line: 40 km for combat and reconnaissance aircraft on the eastern side and 20 km on the western side, and 10–15 km for other unmanned aircraft and helicopters.

The day after that, the North Korean Defense Ministry announced that it would not be bound by the Sept. 19 inter-Korean agreement and that it was immediately reinstating all land-, sea-, and air-based military measures that had been suspended by it. It restored guard posts in the DMZ that had been shut down according to the agreement, transported weapons there, and opened the muzzles of coastal artillery on its western coast.

This sort of tit-for-tat approach amounts to a negative-sum game for South and North Korea — one that raises military tensions and the likelihood of a clash along the border region.

In a more concrete sense, however, it gives more of a military boost to North Korea, which starts from a disadvantage in terms of conventional firepower and long-distance reconnaissance capabilities.

It means that it is not subject to particular constraints in intelligence and operational terms, even if the South maintains the same level of constraints with its superior firepower. As it enters 2024, South Korea finds itself in the same security situation that it faced before the Moon Jae-in administration: one where it constantly has to worry about the possibility of military clashes in the DMZ and the waters near the Northern Limit Line.

The Yoon administration’s foreign affairs and national security policies and confrontational stance toward Pyongyang appear unlikely to change in 2024. North Korea’s response of meeting “strength with strength” will also remain in place.

Whatever faint glimmer of hope lies in the possibility that the general election in April will leave the National Assembly in the hands of politicians who are trying to practice peace. We might also envision that the US presidential election in November will bring to office a new president who boldly attempts to improve Washington’s relationship with Pyongyang.

The most important thing, though, is the presence of a majority of South Korea who hope to see peace achieved through peaceful means. The path of peace is difficult but necessary, and it is a path we will need to resolutely follow in 2024.

By Moon Jang-nyeol, former professor at Korea National Defense University

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles