North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited a shipyard in Nampo, North Korea, according to a report by state media on Feb. 2. (KCNA/Yonhap)
By Jung E-gil, senior international affairs writer
Ever since Kim Yo-jong referred to South Korea as the “Republic of Korea” in July 2023, North Korea has been growing in its determination to part ways with the South.
On Jan. 15, Kim Jong-un said the North Korean constitution should be amended to describe the “Republic of Korea” as the North’s “primary foe and invariable principal enemy” and that the North must “completely eliminate such concepts as ‘reunification,’ ‘reconciliation’ and ‘fellow countrymen’ from the [our] national history.”
Park Chan-wook’s film “Decision to Leave” and the phrase “decision to wage war” spoofing it have become the latest memes to circulate about inter-Korean relations.
During a tour of munitions factories in early January, Kim said North Korea has no intention of avoiding war, though it will not unilaterally use its “overwhelming strength” to create a crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Then he remarked that “we will never unilaterally unleash a war if the enemies do not provoke us” during his speech before the Supreme People’s Assembly.”
Officials in South Korea and the US have also stressed North Korea’s “decision to leave.”
“We are not seeing indications of direct military action [by North Korea],” said Jung Pak, the US senior official for North Korea, in an interview with Yonhap News on Feb. 2.
Pak added that the biggest difference from before is North Korea’s relationship with Russia. By way of elaborating, she said that the two countries’ formation of a strategic relationship over the course of Russia’s war against Ukraine has made the North Korean issue of crucial importance not only in the Indo-Pacific region but around the world.
North Korea has made the “decision to leave” by redefining its relationship with South Korea from two countries with the potential of reunification to two hostile countries. And if we try to meddle, the North says, it may also make the “decision to wage war.”
As Pak said, North Korea’s “decision to leave” comes against the backdrop of changes in the geopolitical situation, including the war in Ukraine.
Once North Korea lost both moral support and financial backing from China and Russia following the disintegration of the socialist bloc in the early 1990s, the North sought to escape from its isolation by using nuclear development to finagle better relations with the US. The high point of Pyongyang’s negotiations with the US over its nuclear program — which continued, off and on, for more than 30 years — was Kim Jong-un’s summit with US President Donald Trump in 2018.
But that summit’s failure left North Korea with its nuclear arsenal, but nothing to show for it. Since then, it has focused on test-firing various missiles, including intercontinental ballistic ones. The North has completely shelved any hopes of improving ties with South Korea and the US, even caustically slamming former South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who mediated the North Korea-US summit, as a “boiled ox head.”
The war in Ukraine, which broke out in 2022 even as strategic opposition between the US and China was intensifying, gave North Korea more room to maneuver. US sanctions against Russia only galvanized the multipolar system that China and Russia have been seeking to institute. The futility of sanctions has opened up fissures in the liberal international order that depends on American hegemony even as China and Russia build up a multipolar system with countries in the Global South.
Since the inauguration of Yoon Suk-yeol as president, South Korea has made a hard turn toward the US-Japan alliance, giving China and Russia an opportunity to positively reappraise North Korea’s strategic value. South Korea has also goaded Russia by indirectly providing Ukraine with munitions.
Kim Jong-un’s visit to Russia and summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin last September was the most important turning point in the North’s trilateral relationship with China and Russia since the 1990s. Reforging a strategic relationship with Russia has given North Korea more options, not only militarily but also economically.
North Korea has emerged as an important member of the multipolar system advocated by China and Russia. Pyongyang is no longer a pariah state begging for better relations with the US and Japan. That’s the background behind its “decision to leave” South Korea and its lack of interest in dialogue with the US.
The fact is that South and North Korea are indisputably distinct sovereign states as far as the international community is concerned. And following their joint statement on July 4, 1972, Seoul and Pyongyang themselves have recognized each other as states and have sought coexistence. The only difference was they recognized a special relationship that could lead to reunification.
But now North Korea has concluded that it has nothing to gain from bargaining with South Korea or the US, and indeed that is the case. If North Korea has decided not to wage war with South Korea but to leave the relationship, we have no option but to accept its decision.
When it comes down to it, North Korea’s “decision to leave” simply represents official acceptance of the reality of two Koreas. Both the nationalist unification narrative of the progressives and the anti-communist unification narrative of the conservatives have always represented an unrealistic form of idealism.
We in South Korea need to think carefully about what kind of relationship to form with the state of North Korea in its ongoing struggle for survival. The answer is that we need to focus on the balance of power both on the Korean Peninsula and in the region, based on a realistic acceptance of inter-Korean relations as a relationship between states.
That doesn’t mean giving up the ideal of reconciliation and reunification between South and North Korea. Rather it’s a pragmatic vision of coexistence of South and North Korea and what that could lead to.
Please direct questions or comments to [firstname.lastname@example.org]