Preventing a Worst-Case Scenario on the Korean Peninsula

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Preventing a Worst-Case Scenario on the Korean Peninsula

Pyongyang’s increased hostility and Seoul’s unyielding posture have set the stage for 2024 to be a dangerous year.

Preventing a Worst-Case Scenario on the Korean Peninsula
Credit: Depositphotos

The year 2024 has kicked off with a series of troubling escalations on the Korean Peninsula. For the first time since 2017, Pyongyang and Seoul have resumed provocative artillery drills in the West Sea – a flashpoint that has escalated into deadly military clashes in the past. North Korea also reached a major accomplishment in expanding its nuclear arsenal, successfully testing its solid-fuel hypersonic missile capability for the first time. 

And this week, tensions have heightened to another level, with Pyongyang declaring it is no longer pursuing peaceful reunification as a key policy goal.     

In a speech at the Supreme People’s Assembly on January 15, Kim Jong Un vowed to stop pursuing reconciliation, ordering that South Korea be redefined in the North Korean Constitution as “the number one hostile country” and “a permanent main enemy.” During the speech, Kim called for removing any language endorsing the notion of peaceful unification and national unity from the constitution. He also ordered the abolition of an existing railway connecting North Korea to South Korea and dismantled existing inter-Korean agencies devoted to promoting dialogue, economic cooperation, and people-to-people exchanges. 

The goals of pursuing peaceful unification and promoting national unity have been mutually recognized as unification principles by Pyongyang and Seoul since they signed the July 4 South-North Joint Communiqué of 1972, the first-ever written agreement between the two Koreas. Pyongyang’s redefinition of the inter-Korean relationship as a permanently adversarial relationship and its attempt to erase decades-long traces of inter-Korean exchanges have raised questions about whether North Korea has completely abandoned the principle of “peaceful reunification” in lieu of pursuing a reunification by force.  

It remains to be seen if Kim’s threatening speech means completely ruling out the possibility of a peaceful, diplomatic solution to address the ongoing confrontation on the Korean Peninsula. But at the very least, Pyongyang’s seeming departure from the principle of “peaceful reunification” serves to confirm its pessimistic assessment of how it should navigate the current situation – that the only viable approach, for now at least, is to double down on military development, the use of coercion, and the threat of war.

Reacting to Kim’s threatening speech, Seoul has responded with the threat of further escalation. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, at his cabinet meeting on January 16, warned that Pyongyang’s threat of “war or peace” no longer works, and any North Korean provocation will be met with “multiple-times stronger” retaliation. 

South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik commented along those lines, warning that a war provocation by Kim will lead to the end of his regime. Calling Kim’s speech a mere attempt to intimidate South Korea and extract concessions, Shin vowed to keep strengthening U.S.-South Korea allied deterrence and stand firm against Pyongyang’s threats – reaffirming the continuation of the Yoon administration’s “peace through strength” strategy.

Pyongyang’s increased hostility and Seoul’s unyielding posture have shown a prelude to what could very well be a dangerous year. Pyongyang may have a number of motivations to increase its level of provocation in 2024.  

With elections approaching in both South Korea and the United States (the South Korean parliamentary election in April and the U.S. presidential election in November), Pyongyang may have entered this year with a greater motivation to rely on escalation to strengthen its diplomatic position. By increasing the sense of urgency among South Korean and American audiences about imminent war, North Korea will hope to raise the political demand in Seoul and Washington for negotiations.  

Another motivation for escalation could be to divert domestic attention away from internal struggles – namely “diversionary escalation.” As economic woes continue in North Korea, Pyongyang may face a growing need to promote regime support by blaming its unstable internal situation on external threats posed by South Korea and the United States.  

As the year goes on, Pyongyang could enhance the frequency and intensity of its provocative military activities, including ballistic missile launches and artillery firings in the West Sea. South Korea and the United States could respond to these North Korean military actions with countervailing deterrence measures, thus reinforcing the tit-for-tat escalatory cycle that has steadily intensified in recent years.

Pyongyang and Seoul are exchanging nonstop what they perceive as measured responses and minor provocations. This could prove dangerous due to the possibility of inadvertent escalation and conflict, which now involves an ever-greater risk of nuclear war. In recent years, mutual threat perception between Seoul and Pyongyang toward each other’s preemptive intent has seemingly grown, and this has arguably significantly increased the danger of nuclear escalation in a crisis.  

Under the Yoon administration, Seoul has ramped up the development of preemptive strike capabilities to remove North Korea’s nuclear control command, namely Kim Jong Un, in a conflict. Meanwhile, Pyongyang abandoned its longstanding “no first use” stance to adopt a preemptive nuclear posture in September 2022, citing Seoul’s enlarged emphasis on preemption among “serious circumstances” that necessitate the posture shift. 

Along with the rising sense of the preemptive threat posed by each other, North Korea’s development of tactical nuclear weapons has significantly lowered the threshold for Pyongyang’s use of nuclear weapons. As several analysts have observed, Seoul’s emphasis on preemptive decapitation and Pyongyang’s new nuclear doctrine can make it easier for each side to overreact and miscalculate.

Assessing Pyongyang’s increasing war rhetoric, Shin, the South Korean defense minister, observed that despite the heightened rhetorical aggression, the likelihood for North Korea to launch an invasion remains relatively low due to the United States’ extended deterrence, South Korean conventional military advantages, and the hefty cost Pyongyang would incur by attempting an invasion, namely the end of the regime. Shin has also logically pointed to North Korean sales of artillery shells to Russia, arguing that for North Korea to sell a large quantity of highly capable artillery would not make sense if it is preparing for its own war. 

Seoul has been wise not to overreact to Kim’s threat of war, and it has yet to face an imminent danger of war with North Korea. Some analysts believe North Korea may be fixed on preparing for war, but the evidence to date is not sufficient to reach such a conclusion. Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that war can still occur as a result of an inadvertent escalation driven by overreactions and miscalculations in a highly tense situation. The growing possibility that a crisis on the Korean Peninsula would go nuclear makes tension management all the more necessary. 

Ultimately, mitigating the growing threats posed by North Korean missile and nuclear advancements will require not only maintaining a credible level of military deterrence but also engaging in diplomacy with Pyongyang to de-escalate tensions and lower the risk of crisis and conflict. This would involve a course correction from the current deterrence-only policy to proactive diplomacy. 

While improving military capability and demonstrating credible resolve matters, efforts to strengthen deterrence should be coupled with efforts to credibly reassure the adversary that its self-restraint will be reciprocated. The dilemma for Seoul in pursuing the current deterrence-only policy is that the more it invests in deterrence, the harder it will become to reassure Pyongyang. A single-minded focus on deterrence and punishment against North Korea could backfire and increase the risk of conflict – the very outcome the policy means to prevent. The more North Korea feels backed into a corner, the more tempted it will be to opt for the last resort, even at the risk of war and regime collapse.  

For the remainder of 2024, Seoul should place a greater priority on restoring the military hotline and diplomatic dialogue with Pyongyang and reviving at least some aspects of the recently scrapped 2018 inter-Korean military agreement to minimize the risk of escalation along their maritime and land borders. 

In collaboration with Washington, Seoul should take bolder diplomatic measures to entice Pyongyang back to dialogue. Options that can be considered include partial sanctions relief, a reduction of South Korea-U.S. joint exercises, and humanitarian aid. Such measures can be sought in exchange for the restoration of military and civilian dialogue with Pyongyang, a reduction of North Korean military activities in the maritime and air space near the border, and a moratorium on North Korean missile testing. 

In order to make its diplomatic efforts more effective, Seoul should enhance its engagement with Beijing to reaffirm the mutual understanding that constraining an overly aggressive Pyongyang is critical for regional stability and serves Chinese security interests. Seoul can also cooperate with Tokyo to improve ties with Pyongyang, possibly by working together to resolve the Japanese abductee issue.  

Some might criticize the efforts to restart engagement with North Korea as appeasement or argue that assurances would signal weakness and weaken deterrence. But policymakers in Seoul and Washington should acknowledge that so long as military tensions, hostility, and suspicion continue to dominate their relationships with Pyongyang, it can only create more room for worst-case strategic thinking and miscalculations that could invite aggression and push the Korean Peninsula closer to a dangerous crisis.