Editor's Note

Won Gon Park, Chair of the EAI Center for North Korean Studies (Professor at Ewha Womans University) stresses that North Korea's persistence to pursue its nuclear-first line will lead Pyongyang to a severe crisis as the line would cripple its economy while boosting the U.S. efforts to establish enhanced alliance security cooperation based on the concept of "integrated deterrence." Dr. Park suggests that the South Korean government establishes measures to assist North Korea's transition to an "economy first" state and to prepare an innovative measure that could guarantee the survival of the regime while not jeopardizing the national security of South Korea.

“Our generation will not pursue an immediately visible improved environment for the economic life at the cost of giving up the nuclear weapons, which guarantee the security of the government of our Republic and the coming generations, to find our own comfort and to escape today’s difficulties unable to bear the enemy’s deceitful preaching and tenacious pressure, not will we change our choice even if it would mean experiencing great difficulties.” [1]


General Secretary of the Workers’ Party, Kim Jong Un declared “Law on DPRK’s Policy on Nuclear Forces Promulgated” in an address to the Supreme People’s Assembly in September 2022 and made clear its policy direction to pursue ‘Nuclear First.’


In 2022, he demonstrated his political power of policy execution by firing 70 ballistic missiles in 33 launches, including 8 intercontinental ballistic missiles, the most ever launched in a single year. This year, Kim revealed his aim to incite tensions on the Korean Peninsula through roughly equivalent nuclear races and hostility towards South Korea as they did last year at the Workers’ Party’s the 6th Plenary Session of the 8th Central Committee in December 2022.


This commentary analyzes North Korea’s decisions. It first assesses the proclaimed policy from the standpoint of continuity, and then, after discussing the possibility of its execution as well as its limitations, it forecasts North Korea’s actions in 2023. Finally, it examines the ramifications of the nuclear threat and proposes a policy for South Korea.


North Korea’s 2023 Strategy: Continuing the Frontal Breakthrough Line


North Korea held the 6th Plenary Session of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party from December 26 to 31, 2022, the longest-ever session held, and unveiled its 2023 plan. As declared during this Plenary Session, North Korea's foreign policy is consistent with the “frontal breakthrough” line made at the 5th session of the 7th Central Committee in December 2019. North Korea indicated that the United States must withdraw its hostile policy and guarantee Pyongyang’s right to development and survival in advance as a precondition to resuming any dialogue in October 2019. Overall, North Korea’s policy continues toward a “frontal breakthrough” line, which was stressed as the main principle in the Plenary session as follows.


First, North Korea strengthens its self-reliance and delivers a “telling blow” against sanctions imposed by the United States. At the 5th Plenary Session of the 7th Central Committee, Kim Jong Un advocated that “the whole nation should be full of a sense of self-confidence and audacity to neutralize hostile forces’ sanctions and pressure with its own way and bring a bright future closer” At the 6th Plenary Session of the 8th Central Committee, Kim Jong Un also lauded 2022 as “a praiseworthy victory won only by our great people who have displayed the spirit of self-reliance and fortitude and the creativity while stoutly enduring the grave national crises, and the immortal feats to remain in the history of the country forever.” [2]


Second is the advancement of nuclear capabilities. At the Plenary Session in December 2019, North Korea declared its intention to scrap the moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile testing that was agreed upon during the 3rd Plenary Session of the 7th Central Committee in April 2018. Kim Jong Un stated, “There is no need for us to be tied unilaterally by commitments that we have no counterparty to uphold,” and added, “We must also accelerate the strategic weapons development project.” The Plenary Session also underlined the relevance of nuclear weapons strengthening: “develop another ICBM system,” “importance and necessity of mass-producing tactical nuclear weapons,” and calls for “exponential increase of the country’s nuclear arsenal” [3]. It is confirmed that they will continue to bolster their nuclear capabilities, as North Korea declared a frontal breakthrough line.


Thirdly, it stresses that Pyongyang’s policy toward Washington and Seoul should be based on a long-term perspective. “The party has decided to engage in a lengthy and difficult struggle.” Kim Jong Un vowed a long war while introducing the frontal breakthrough, adding, “The party has resolved to undertake a long and arduous struggle. Our strong revolutionary belief is that we will strengthen ourselves and prosper ourselves to safeguard the dignity of the country and vanquish imperialism even if we tighten our belts.”


The 2022 December Plenary sessions introduced the concept of a “new Cold War.” Kim Jong Un stated that “the structure of international relations has been apparently shifted into a ‘new cold war’ system” and proposed “the principles of external work to be thoroughly adhered to by the WPK and the DPRK government to raise the national prestige, defend the national rights and interests and protect the regional peace and security.” [4] It implies the Cold War's structural and long-term character. In particular, unlike the 8th Plenary Session of the 4th Central Committee in 2021, the re-declaration of relations with the South as “hostile” and the release of an action plan with the statement “the report clarified the detailed orientations of responding to the U.S. and other enemies on shifting to the actual actions of more reliably and surely cementing our physical force on the principle of struggle against the enemy – might for might, frontal match.” was made in 2022 to maintain tension on the Korean Peninsula. [5]


Finally, the ideological confrontation between anti-socialists and non-socialists persists. The 5th Plenary Session of the 7th Central Committee adopted “launching an intensive Party-wide, nationwide and society-wide campaign against anti-socialist and non-socialist practices, improving the work of working people’s organizations and tightening moral discipline throughout” as the fifth resolution. The 6th Plenary Session of the 8th Central Committee highlighted ideological struggles such as the “fundamental transformation in the people's ideological culture and living culture zone” in its first parliamentary report, claiming that it would improve the “effectiveness and efficiency” of business.


In sum, North Korea reaffirmed in 2023 that it would strengthen its socialist ideology and moral discipline, which is the core of the frontal breakthrough to crack down on internal complaints. By doing so, it seeks to overcome the economic hardship imposed by the international sanctions under the slogan of boosting self-reliance and continue the long-term struggle until it is recognized as a de facto nuclear state. North Korea is well expected to continue making provocations and nuclear threats this year following its unprecedented number of missile tests in 2022. First and foremost, they will implement the “epochal strategy for the development of nuclear force and national defense for 2023”, which was adopted at the 8th Plenary Session of the 6th Central Committee, based on the “five-year plan for weapon systems and defense science development”, unveiled at the 8th Party Congress in 2021.


To bolster North Korea’s “nuclear force,” Pyongyang will attempt to switch intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles targeting the United States mainland to solid fuel. Also, warhead miniaturing and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle technologies will be developed. North Korea will also try to increase the number of tactical nuclear weapons aimed at South Korea, Japan, and Guam. In terms of “defense development,” the North Korean government will endeavor to follow Kim Jong Un’s instruction that 2023 should be a year of “strengthening the politico-ideological might of the DPRK’s armed forces in every way and a year of bringing about a turn in making war preparations and enhancing the actual war capacity.” [6]


North Korea will likely remain unwilling to resume dialogue with the United States or South Korea under the pretext that the two nations maintain their antagonistic policies towards the North. Pyongyang made it clear that they would come back to talks only when major sanctions relief was made for their right to develop and a permanent halt of ROK-U.S. joint drills and deployment of American strategic military assets to the Korean Peninsula, and ultimately the withdrawal of United States Forces in Korea for the right to survive. North Korea already knows that these conditions are not acceptable. In this context, North Korea is not willing to engage in dialogue with the United States or South Korea and is on its way to advancing its nuclear program using the hostile policies of the latter as a pretext for dragging the situation into a long-term conflict.


Challenges for North Korea in 2023: Hope and Reality


In order for North Korea to make a “frontal breakthrough” in the situation, it must be backed by its external environment and domestic basis, particularly the economy that provides the regime with durability. However, the external situation that North Korea will face in 2023 is challenging. In the 6th Plenary Session of the 8th Central Committee, Kim Jong Un claimed “As the structure of international relations has been apparently shifted to the new Cold War system with a push for multipolarization further expedited”, which appears that North Korea is seeking to break away from diplomatic isolation and justify its nuclear weapons program that has been outlawed by the United Nations (UN). [7] North Korea is attempting to use the inability of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to solve the North Korean nuclear issue to perpetuate its dysfunction by portraying a “New Cold war” system as a new structural reality. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine not only rendered the UNSC ineffective, but also provided an opportunity for democratic countries around the world, led by the United States, to unite again. Lifting sanctions imposed on Pyongyang has become even more difficult as North Korea is deepening its strategic relationship with Russia. With European nations unanimously deciding to tighten sanctions on Russia nine times, there is no rationale for the relief of the sanctions on North Korea, especially in the absence of any serious efforts from Pyongyang to denuclearize. In addition, North Korea’s regional strategy presupposing the confrontation between DPRK-China-Russia and ROK-U.S.-Japan, as well as the global contest between the liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes, do not ensure the same durability and continuity as the Cold War era did. There is no consistent ideological alternative opposing liberal democracy and no guarantee of internal cohesion or insulation within or between different camps. Although the tensions between the United States and China intensify complete decoupling between the two in economic and other social spheres is unlikely.


Given the absence of a common unifying value, solidarity within the camp of authoritarian regimes is weak. The nature of bilateral relationships between Pyongyang-Beijing, Pyongyang-Moscow, and Beijing-Moscow are in a strategic ‘marriage of convenience’ rather than a bond of ideology and identity sharing the same socialist values. Even if short-term collaboration among them is feasible to face a common enemy like the U.S., ensuring and long-term cooperation is difficult. In this context, if the unity of liberal democracies is strengthened in the context of the 2023 Russia-Ukraine war and the U.S.-China conflict, North Korea’s goal to secure de facto nuclear power status and relaxation of sanctions will remain distant.


Without robust economic growth, North Korea’s frontal breakthrough line cannot bear any fruit. The future is bleak. In particular, 2023 is a critical 3rd year that will determine whether the five-year economic development plan enacted at the 8th Party Congress in 2021 would succeed or fail. Kim Jong Un proposed a 1.4-fold increase in Gross Domestic Production (GDP) at the 8th Party Congress and reiterated his objectives during his speech to the Supreme People's Assembly in September 2022. The bad news is that it is almost impossible to achieve this goal. For 140 percent growth, it must develop at a pace of 7 percent every year from 2021 to 2025, while the Bank of Korea estimated North Korea’s economic growth rate at 0.5 percent in 2021. This growth rate is most likely to continue in 2022 as well. [8]


Pyongyang also acknowledged its economic difficulties at the 8th Plenary Session of the 6th Central Committee in December 2022. Since the end of 2019, North Korea has provided economic performance assessment reports for the year during the annual plenary sessions. Details of an economic blueprint and goals for growth in each industrial area for the next year and proposals for improving the state’s budget are also released. However, such remarks were not found at the 8th Plenary Session. When making a report on the fulfillment of the state budget for 2022, North Korean authorities decided not to publish details about their accomplishments on the economic front including its plan for improving the economic conditions. Even for the budget plan for 2023, no plan was announced except for the construction of houses. On the whole, it seems that the North also admitted that no distinctive achievements could be made in 2023. Following the plenary session, the “12 major goals for the national economic development” was laid out, which included Argon, Power, Coal, Rolled Steel, Colored Metal, Nitrogen Fertilizer, Cement, Log, Cloth, Marine Products, Salim House, and Rail Cargo Transport. All of them are related to basic necessities, demonstrating that North Korea is still experiencing serious food and energy shortages.


At the 8th Session of the 14th Supreme Peoples’ Assembly, held on January 17 to 18, 2023, the scale of budget revenue and expenditure were announced as 101% and 101.7% of the previous year respectively, which means both are to be practically frozen. The military expenditure will account for 15.9% of the total budget this year, the same proportion as last year. However, the other economic sectors remained unchanged, and items that were cut from the budget were not specified. Given that the size of the defense budget, which represents the largest signification of the total expenditure, remains the same, the North Korean economy is anticipated to stay at a similar level as last year.


North Korea focuses on strengthening self-sufficiency and effort mobilization rather than taking genuine economic reform measures. During the 8th Plenary Session of the 6th Central Committee, it strongly condemned “defeatism and mysticism in technology” and invoked “the fighting spirit of the 1960s and 70s” and the “Cheonlima Movement” to urge citizens to mobilize to overcome the challenge. Furthermore, it foreshows to take retrogressive measures in 2023 to enhance government control in the domains of trade and food distribution as it did during the 2022 economic crisis. Kim Jong Un stated in September last year, “Unified guidance and management of the overall state affairs including the economic work is being further intensified with the socialist character being restored.” [9] Rather than offering a fresh vision for resolving economic challenges, Pyongyang chooses to return to the 1970s and suggests a path of politicizing the economy and autarky, which already failed 50 years ago.


The North Korean economy suffers from repeated natural catastrophes and lockdowns induced by COVID-19. However, the chronic economic difficulties are caused by international sanctions due to its nuclear weapons program and its policy choices to prioritize investment in increasing nuclear capabilities over other fields. Subsequently, even if Pyongyang attempts to normalize its trade relations with China, economic sanctions will affect them, North Korea’s exports to China will be restricted and, imports from China will rise dramatically. Global inflation also could drive up exchange rates and import prices, which could quickly drain North Korea’s foreign currency. If North Korean authorities restrict imports, North Korean people will suffer due to reduced industrial production and a shortage of daily necessities. Furthermore, tightening government controls will hamper the market supply of foreign currency and goods, causing inflation and economic depression.


North Korea's Options in 2023: Drastic Switchover vs. Hardening the Siege Mentality


As Pyongyang acknowledges the difficulties in its economic conditions, the regime’s durability will be a crucial factor in determining Pyongyang's actions in 2023. A series of natural disasters and the re-spreading of the coronavirus will be combined with economic challenges imposed by sanctions, impacting North Koreans’ living conditions and the system's overall durability.


If its durability deteriorates, Pyongyang has two alternatives. First, as in late 2017 and early 2018, Pyongyang might decide to change the gear and engage in dialogue with South Korea and the United States. North Korea could grant itself “nuclear power status” by conducting the seventh nuclear test and justify its efforts to resume the dialogue, just as how the Hwasung-15 missile test on November 29, 2017, allowed the regime to declare the completion of its nuclear force. Pyongyang might try negotiations with the United States to ease sanctions in exchange for the partial denuclearization or freezing of some of its nuclear facilities.


Second, it is feasible to attempt to overcome challenges by employing the “siege mentality,” which blames the hostile strategic environments to the greatest extent possible. The regime often takes this option as the Arduous March in the late 1990s was overcome by public mobilization that raised the sense of crisis. In particular, it is possible to generate tension on the Peninsula by utilizing its nuclear weapons capability and turning to the “display of power” measures as the Kim Jong Un regime frequently tried before. For example, as Kim Yo Jong did with making her December 20 statement last year, North Korea could test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile at a normal trajectory, rather than a lofted trajectory, flaunting its advanced capabilities. Alternatively, considering that the 8th Plenary Session defined South Korea as an “undoubted enemy” and devised “actual action of more reliably and surely cementing our physical force,” it may conduct local provocations in a limited way under the pretext of routine ROK-US joint military exercises. [10] With these measures, North Korea can attempt to overcome its difficulties and strengthen its total mobilization system by raising tensions an creating war crises.


North Korea's Future: Kim Jong Un's Crisis


The past 30 years repeatedly demonstrated that Pyongyang’s demand for guaranteeing its right to develop and survive contradicts each other. It is impossible not to “tighten its belt again” unless it gives up its nuclear weapons program. Even though North Korea hopes for the revival of the Cold War system, upgrading its nuclear force cannot but provide a stimulus for the U.S. to restructure the security order in East Asia in a fundamental way with its new strategic concept of “integrated deterrence.” If it is possible to bring the Trans-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific Alliances altogether and build a security alignment of “federation,” Washington could reconstitute its capability by integrating its forward-deployed assets and its allies' military capabilities. By maximizing the “force multiplying” effects of combining the two, the “tailored deterrence strategy” targeting North Korea could even neutralize its nuclear forces. [11] Even if China builds up its military might to match U.S. efforts to upgrade its forces, it will not be feasible to have the equivalent capabilities without the support of allies and partners. This might lead to a compromise between Washington and Beijing in the future, which will be the deciding moment for North Korea as China might renounce its unconditional support for Pyongyang. Furthermore, as stated in the “Phnom Penh Statement on Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific” of November 2022, South Korea and Japan might manage to overcome the historical issues and strengthen their deterrence capability against North Korean nuclear weapons. South Korea and Japan may advance their potential nuclear capabilities depending on the denuclearization front.


If North Korea sticks to its nuclear-first line rather than economy-first policies, crippling its economy, North Korea will likely experience a serious crisis in the coming years. Over time, the ROK-U.S. alliance and federation of their allies will strengthen their deterrence capability against North Korea's nuclear weapons, reducing the efficacy of the weapon and, eventually, eradicating them. The durability of Kim Jong Un’s regime will be seriously challenged when the political and military symbolism of nuclear force, which the regime has upheld in the name of “display of power” politics, crumbles.


South Korea’s Response


South Korea should work with other like-minded countries that share liberal democratic values, including the U.S., to transform North Korea from a nuclear-first state to an economy-first state. To that end, it is critical to simultaneously push for measures that maximize the cost of North Korea’s nuclear armament while at the same time maximizing the benefits of denuclearization. The former requires integrated extended deterrence. Efforts should be made to increase the degree of institutionalization, such as joint planning and implementation, by reinforcing the present extended deterrence while also enhancing the integrated deterrent against North Korea. Efforts to bolster monitoring and reconnaissance networks with American allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region, and upgrade missile defense systems should be made. Additionally, efforts should be made to neutralize North Korean nuclear force through technological advancement in multifaceted areas, including cyber and space. Considering that North Korea maintains a one-man rule system, enhancing the strike capacity to destroy the North Korean top leadership would also improve deterrence capabilities.


First and foremost, measures to guarantee regime survival should be elaborated. Since 2009, North Korea has been trying to separate United States-North Korea diplomatic relations from the North Korean nuclear issue. Until the completion of the denuclearization process, an innovative model should be made to ensure the survival of the North Korean regime without jeopardizing South Korean national security.


In order to achieve an “economy first” in North Korea, economic cooperation between the North and the South needs to be expanded. Given the nature of the North Korean regime that competes with the South Korean system, it is vital to explicitly provide a model for North Korean economic growth by linking it to the global economy. As North Korea is sensitive about its economic dependency on China, it may agree to steps such as utilizing international institutions or establishing multilateral economic cooperation to boost its economic development.


Finally, South Korea should devise measures to support North Korea’s evolution into a “knowledge-based state” that can autonomously organize the path of a non-nuclear and prosperous state. As Kim Jong Un solidifies North Korea as a nuclear power and adopts a ‘display of power’ politics, the process of persuading the regime will be long and arduous. However, North Korea should be induced to realize that it cannot continue as a nuclear-first state for the next 30 years and choose a new model to reconstruct the nation as a whole. As he did at the 8th Party Congress, Kim Jong Un will find it difficult to admit his inability to develop the North Korean economy at the next Party Congress in 2026, which will convene after the termination of the five-year economic development plan. However, without lifting economic sanctions by taking denuclearization measures, it is impossible to increase its GDP by 1.4 times by 2025.


In conclusion, South Korea must come up with a complex North Korean policy that makes clear there is no possibility that the international community will accept North Korea as a nuclear power, reduce the efficacy of North Korean nuclear weapons to the greatest extent, and maximize the benefit of denuclearization and economy-first policies.■



[1] Speech at the 7th Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly, Korean Central News Agency 2022.9.8


[2] Report on 6th Plenary Meeting of 8th WPK Central Committee, Rodong Sinmun, 2023.1.1


[3] Report on 6th Plenary Meeting of 8th WPK Central Committee, Rodong Sinmun, 2023.1.1


[4] Report on 6th Plenary Meeting of 8th WPK Central Committee, Rodong Sinmun, 2023.1.1


[5] Report on 6th Plenary Meeting of 8th WPK Central Committee, Rodong Sinmun, 2023.1.1


[6] Report on 6th Plenary Meeting of 8th WPK Central Committee, Rodong Sinmun, 2023.1.1


[7] Report on 6th Plenary Meeting of 8th WPK Central Committee, Rodong Sinmun, 2023.1.1


[8] East Asia Institute, 2023, “2023 International Order in Transition and the Future of the Korean Peninsula” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pufUuCIZL0c (Accessed: February 1, 2023)


[9] Respected Comrade Kim Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Policy Speech at Seventh Session of the 14th SPA of DPRK, Chosun Central News, September 8, 2023


[10] Report on 6th Plenary Meeting of 8th WPK Central Committee, Rodong Sinmun, 2023.1.1


[11] Kathleen Hicks, 2021, “Advance Policy Questions for Dr.Kathleen Hicks, Nominee for Appointment to be Deputy Secretary of Defense”, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Hicks_APQs_02-02-21.pdf (Accessed: February 1, 2023) Anthony J.Blinken and Lloyd J. Austin, 2021 “America’s partnerships are ‘force multipliers’ in the world,” Washington Post. The White House, 2022, “National Security Strategy,” 20. The U.S. Department of Defense, 2022, “National Defense Strategy of the United States”.



Won Gon Park is a Professor in the Department of North Korean Studies of Ewha Womans University. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of International Relations at Seoul National University. He studied the ROK-U.S. alliance and North Korea for 18 years at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. He has previously served as a professor of international studies at Handong Global University. Currently, he is a member of the Policy Advisory Committee of the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His primary research areas include the ROK-U.S. alliance, North Korean diplomacy and military affairs, and international relations in Northeast Asia.



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