North Korea is overhauling its approach to South Korea, implementing policy and structural changes that will essentially categorize the South as an adversarial, independent nation.
These shifts, which diverge from longstanding practices, may result in North Korea’s foreign ministry assuming control of South Korean affairs, and could rationalize the employment of nuclear arms against Seoul in potential future conflicts, according to experts.
Historically, since the inconclusive conclusion of the Korean War in 1953, both countries have engaged with each other in a manner distinct from their interactions with other nations.
This has involved the use of dedicated bodies and departments for inter-Korean matters instead of their respective foreign ministries, and the adoption of strategies aimed at eventual peaceful reunification, typically imagining a unified nation under a dual-system framework.
However, during a recent end-of-year party assembly, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared that peaceful reunification is unattainable and announced that the government would enact a “decisive policy change” regarding the “enemy.” He further instructed the military to ready itself for the subjugation and control of the South in case of an emergency.
Policy alterations could facilitate North Korea’s rationale for deploying nuclear weaponry against the South, a threat that has been increasingly vocalized in recent times, stated Hong Min, a prominent analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
“If they abandon the goal of peaceful unification and recast South Korea as an antagonistic enemy state devoid of diplomatic ties, the paradox of targeting nuclear arms at their own kin dissipates,” explained Hong.
Some experts argue that North Korea’s pronouncements merely mirror the actuality of two deeply divided and disparate nations.
“North Korea has hinted at a significant shift in its South Korea policy in recent times, and the Party plenum in December 2023 not only corroborated this but also made it official,” remarked Rachel Minyoung Lee from the Stimson Center in the U.S.
The scope of these organizational modifications remains uncertain, and some commentators believe that since the rhetoric now more accurately reflects the current situation, a substantial alteration in the already hostile relationship between the Koreas is improbable.
In the past, episodes of escalated tension, such as the “fire and fury” period of 2016 and 2017, have intermittently given way to phases of détente and diplomacy, including the summits in 2018 and 2019 involving Kim and the leaders of South Korea and the U.S.
“North Korea, in its summary of the party plenary session, stated it would no longer view us as partners for reconciliation and unification, yet the reality is that it has never genuinely pursued these objectives,” commented an official from South Korea’s unification ministry, responsible for North Korean relations, in a recent declaration.
The Workers’ Party of Korea’s United Front Department has traditionally managed South Korean affairs, encompassing espionage and propaganda activities.
Nonetheless, if dialogue eventually resumes, the proclamation suggests that Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, an experienced diplomat, will supervise South Korean relations, indicated Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership specialist at the Stimson Center.
“I attribute her role as a key adviser on unification and South Korea policy to Kim’s 2019 excursion to the erstwhile inter-Korean resort near Mt. Kumgang. Her presence at that event, though not without precedent, was notably rare and signaled an expansion of her jurisdiction over South Korean policy,” Madden observed.
The revelation that Choe, a seasoned diplomat with minimal involvement in inter-Korean relations, spearheaded the “dismantling and reforming” of South Korea-related entities, as reported by state media, implies that the foreign ministry might integrate those entities and their responsibilities, said Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“The United Front Department and the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, which had traditionally handled inter-Korean ties, could be disbanded altogether or at least see their roles significantly reduce,” he said. North Korea could also decide to cut the South out entirely and only deal with the United States, he added.
While foreign ministry officials occasionally advised on inter-Korean issues, under Kim there has been no known crossover between foreign ministry and UFD officials, Madden said.
Whatever changes occur, key UFD intelligence official are unlikely to be sidelined and the agency is likely to retain authority over some key propaganda broadcasts and websites, he added.