Editor's Note

In this commentary, Hyeong Jung Park, Emeritus Research Fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) provides us with an overview of inter-Korean relations in 2021. While there have been no summits or direct negotiations between the two Koreas, rhetorical tension was persistent throughout the year. Nonetheless, there were no provocations that crossed the red line. Dr. Park claims that it can be said that North Korea had been buying time while enhancing its capabilities to defend the nation. The author additionally provides five key variables to consider in preparation for the New Year.

Overview of Inter-Korean Relations


In 2021, there were no official direct contacts or negotiations known between South and North Korean authorities. In terms of military action, both sides conducted missile tests and regular military trainings, but the peninsula maintained a peaceful status in general. Inter-Korean relations were primarily characterized by confrontations via statements. Essentially, a rhetoric war was staged in a pattern in which the South expressed a certain policy position and the North negatively responded to it. South Korea repeatedly expressed its usual optimistic expectations, appealing to and urging North Korea to resume and improve inter-Korean relations. However, the North habitually threatened and warned about South Korea’s and the U.S.’ “hostile policy” and responded with rebuttal and ridicule to South Korea's appeals, urges, and expectations. The regime also took advantage of the situation and used it as an opportunity to reaffirm and promote its erstwhile demands toward the South, such as “abolition of its hostile policy toward North Korea.” In 2021, North Korea continued to flaunt its achievements in its efforts for “strengthening its defense forces.” For example, North Korea displayed its recent accomplishments in the modernization of its nuclear and missile capabilities as well as conventional arsenals during a nighttime military parade to commemorate the 8th Party Congress on January 14 and the Defense Development Exhibition in October. In addition, North Korea held a military parade of civilian and security armed forces to mark the 73rd anniversary of the republic's founding on September 9, demonstrating its current status in its “preparation for all-people resistance” as requested by the 8th Party Congress. North Korea had conducted eight missile tests by the end of October 2021, while it had conducted tests 27 in 2019 and two in 2020.


North Korea’s Policy toward South Korea


The 8th Party Congress held in January revealed North Korea’s three strategic inclinations toward South Korea and the U.S. as follows. The overarching goal was to strengthen and modernize “state defense capabilities through developing defense industry by leaps and bounds.” Second, the fulfillment of the first goal should enable North Korea to put diplomatic relations “on the right track” and to “prevail over and subjugate the U.S., our [North Korea’s] principal enemy.” Third, the state was to modernize the nuclear/missile arsenal through two tracks — the first track is to continuously advance the strategic nuclear capability to strike U.S. mainland; the second is to develop and possess tactical nuclear weapons and build capabilities to actually use them in warfare. Specifically for this third goal, North Korea has pursued three things. First, the regime has tried to neutralize the missile defense capabilities of South Korea, the U.S., and Japan through diversifying its missile arsenal. Second, North Korea has pursued the perfection of assured retaliation against the U.S., among others, through “continuously pushing forward the production of super-large nuclear warheads and finalizing the research for MIRV (Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle) technology.” Third, the regime has been developing capacities for tactical nuclear warfare, among others, through “miniaturization, weight-lighting and tactical-weaponization of nuclear warheads.”


In 2021, North Korea has constantly asked for the following five demands. Its first demand is the withdrawal of “hostile policy” toward North Korea. Specifically, North Korea demanded the permanent cessation of the ROK-U.S. joint military exercise and the suspension of bringing in various strategic weapons to the South. Second, the regime demanded Seoul and Washington to scrap their ‘double standards’. Pyongyang argues that its nuclear/missile tests is a legitimate exercise of self-defense rather than an illegal provocation prohibited by the United Nations. Since North Korea raised this argument, South Korea has actually refrained from using the term “provocation.” Third, North Korea has repeatedly and aggressively refuted the Moon Jae-in administration's policy toward North Korea. The report of the 8th Party Congress reads, “South Korean authorities are now giving the impression that they are concerned about the improvement of North-South relations by raising inessential issues such as cooperation in epidemic prevention, humanitarian cooperation, and tourism.” In addition, North Korea has threatened South Korea on several occasions. For example, Kim Yong-chol, head of the United Front Department, warned on August 11 that “We will make them realize by the minute what a dangerous choice they made and what a serious security crisis they will face because of their wrong choice (of conducting ROK-U.S. joint military exercises).” The fifth demand is sanctions relief. Regarding an end-of-war declaration proposed by President Moon on September 21, North Korea demanded the lifting of sanctions on the exports of minerals, imports of refined petroleum products, medicines and necessities related-to people's livelihood and “at least” suspend the joint military exercises as a precondition for holding a discussion on the declaration.


An Assessment of 2021


In 2021, North Korea's foreign policy was characterized by high rhetorical tensions with South Korea and the U.S. However, in terms of behavior, it generally refrained from provocations that crossing the red line. For longer-term purposes, North Korea has concentrated its efforts on enhancing its “defense capacities” and maintained a posture of buying time, while waiting and preparing for the right moments for initiating next crisis. There appears to be five reasons for North Korea to adopt such a stance. First, it is necessary for the regime to focus on managing the internal situation, which has become additionally difficult due to COVID-19. Second, it may have been difficult for the North to neglect China's concern for maintaining the calm on the Korean peninsula, as its dependence on the latter increased. Third, South Korea’s and the U.S.’ accommodating and prudent approach provides North Korea with some leeway and conditions to acquire time to reinforcing its capacity of “internal balancing.” Fourth, there is no need to either provoke or attempt serious rapprochement with South Korea, which is soon to pick a new president. Fifth, they may need still some additional technological advancements and preparations to resume a nuclear/missile offensive in earnest.


Prospects for 2022


What policy towards South Korea and the U.S. will North Korea adopt in 2022? There are several variables to consider. The first one is the outcome of the South Korean presidential election next March. On the one hand, the next government may pursue bolder policy toward North Korea as an extension of the current Moon Jae-in administration’s policy. This increases potential for dissonance between Seoul and Washington, which induces North Korea to focus on driving a wedge between South Korea and the U.S. On the other hand, the next South Korean government's North Korea policy may be revised to strengthen its cooperation with the U.S. In this case, North Korea is likely to attempt punitive retaliation for the South Korean government's shift in policy. In both cases, China will either support North Korea or do nothing. The second variable is North Korea's decisions on its policy toward the U.S. One scenario involves North Korea resuming provocations and offensives against the U.S. At the 8th Party Congress, North Korea revealed its intention to enhance strategic nuclear/missile capabilities against the U.S. Since North Korea has refrained from strategic provocations since the end of 2017, it must internally have made sufficient technological preparations for strategic weapons provocations. Another scenario involves North Korea continuing to exercise strategic restraint. Kim Jong Un has recently used such terms as “stability and power balance” in international relations. As North Korea is still internally vulnerable and may believe that significant deterrence is already secured, the regime may seek to avoid a situation in which further strategic provocations would exacerbate external pressure. However, in any of the above scenarios, the regime will maintain its harsh and rigorous internal policy of ban and crackdown on any symbol of South Korean cultural infiltration, a policy significantly hardened since February 2019, for the time being. North Korea would need to uphold cognitive-consonance between its external and internal policies regarding South Korea. This bodes ill for a renewal of inter-Korean rapprochement, at least, in the next year. 



Hyeong Jung Park is an emeritus research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU). He received his PhD from the University of Marburg, Germany in Political Science. He served as an advisor to the Ministry of Unification, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Intelligence Service, Peaceful Unification Advisory Council, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Institute for Security & Development Policy. His main fields of research include politics and economy of North Korea, comparative analysis of socialism, inter-Korean relations, and U.S.-DPRK. His recent papers include “10 Years of South Korea Policy under Kim Jong Un,” “Kim Jong Un Style National Strategy and Reorganization of Human Resources and Institution,” and others.



Typeset by Seung Yeon Lee Research Associate
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