Editor's Note

Young-Sun Ha (Chairman, EAI) and Yang-Gyu Kim (Executive Director, EAI) analyze North Korea’s recent proclamation of a “fundamental turnabout” in its policy towards South Korea, asserting that the regime is threatening to annilate its neighbor as the best alternative strategy to address their inability to establish Mutual Assured Destruction against the U.S. The authors suggest a four-fold strategy for South Korea: (1) bolstering South Korean model of integrated deterrence, (2) guaranteeing regime survival if DPRK abandons its nuclear arsenal, (3) fostering economic growth in a nuclear-free North Korea, and (4) collectively aiding Pyongyang’s informatization and intellectualization to align with the modern day global standards.

Following the DPRK’s declaration of a “fundamental turnabout” in its policy towards South Korea and redefinition of the inter-Korean relationship as “relations between two states hostile to each other” (Rodong Sinmun 2023/12/31), widespread confusion and disoriented debates prevail both within South Korea and internationally. To clarify this situation, this briefing begins by analyzing the recent changes in North Korea’s policy towards South Korea, which were disclosed at the 9th Enlarged Plenum of the 8th Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee last December, in the context of their historical policy progression. It also addresses North Korea’s recent proclamation of “the legal right to annihilate South Korea,” viewed as a reaction to the Biden administration’s tailored extended deterrence strategy that emphasizes the “end of regime.” Ultimately, the briefing outlines a set of four-dimensional policy approaches for South Korea, aiming to transcend the current discourse focused on “end” and “annihilation,” and to establish a path toward a peaceful and prosperous Korean Peninsula.



1. North Korea’s “Fundamental Turnabout”: Annihilation of South Korea


During the 9th Plenum last December, Kim Jong Un announced a “fundamental turnabout in the sector of work toward the south on the basis of a cool analysis of the bitter history of the north-south relations which has repeatedly suffered only distrust and confrontation” (Rodong Sinmun 2023/12/31). He criticized the ROK authorities for promoting “unification by absorption” or “regime collapse” under the guise of “North Korea policy” or “unification policy,” stating that these approaches contrast with the North’s vision of reunification, which he describes as “one nation and one state with two systems.” Kim also labeled South Korea as “nothing but a hemiplegic malformation and colonial subordinate state whose politics is completely out of order, whole society tainted by Yankee culture, and defense and security totally dependent on the U.S.” He asserted that as a result, the inter-Korean relations have irreversibly shifted to being “completely fixed into the relations between two states hostile to each other and the relations between two belligerent states, not the consanguineous or homogeneous ones anymore.”


In a speech at the 10th Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) (KCNA 2024/01/15), Kim Jong Un highlighted two main reasons for the heightened risk of war: (1) the proximity of its “most hostile state [ROK]” and (2) “the regional situation … soaring due to the U.S.-led escalation of military tensions.” Kim Jong Un claimed that such a war would “terribly destroy the entity called the Republic of Korea and put an end to its existence,” and also “inflict an unimaginably crushing defeat upon the U.S.”


In his address at the Ministry of National Defense (KCNA 2024/2/9), Kim announced that North Korea “designated the puppet Republic of Korea as our most dangerous and first enemy state and invariable archenemy,” and decided as their “state policy to occupy and subjugate its territory in time of emergency.” In making this decision, North has “ridden [themselves] on [their] own initiative of the fetters of unrealistic developments,” moving away from a past where they were “taken captive by the rhetorical expression of fellow compatriots, had to endeavor for dialogue and cooperation.” This shift has reportedly established a “legal entitlement” to “strike and annihilate it at any moment if it dares to provoke.”


How new are these threats? Since Kim Jong Un’s speech at the military parade marking the 90th founding anniversary of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army (KPRA) in April 2022, North Korea has already established two distinct missions for their nuclear forces. While the first mission highlights traditional defense and deterrence against perceived threats from U.S. military actions, the second mission is framed in more confrontational terms against the ROK. On September 8, 2022, North Korea revised its Nuclear Forces Policy Laws, which initially focused on the first mission when originally enacted in 2013. The revised law incorporates the second mission, stating that its nuclear forces “shall carry out an operational mission for repulsing hostile forces’ aggression and attack and achieving decisive victory of war in case its deterrence fails.” Nevertheless, back in 2022 when they were discussing this second mission, North Korea stopped short of explicitly mentioning the “annihilation” of South Korea. In this regard, this recent use of “annihilation” rhetoric represents a clear shift in North Korea’s policy towards the ROK.


Historically, the first shift in North Korea’s policy towards South Korea occurred post-1948, marked by their pursuit of unification through warfare that culminated in the Korean War of 1950. The second shift emerged in 1964 at the 4th WPK Congress, introducing the concept of unification through revolution. This policy shift was largely influenced by global geopolitical dynamics. With the U.S. deeply involved in the Vietnam War and the escalating conflict between the PRC and the USSR, it became impractical for North Korea to consider a unification strategy akin to a second Korean War. Consequently, North Korea shifted its focus towards fostering revolution, leveraging its superior economic position compared to the South at the time. The 1972 Joint Communique, emphasizing the three main principles of independence, peace, and national unity, was a manifestation of this strategic approach.


Transitioning into the third phase, North Korea is redefining its relationship with South Korea as “relations between two states hostile to each other and the relations between two belligerent states”, aiming to adopt a North Korean version of tailored nuclear threat strategy against the South. Therefore, it’s crucial to examine this “two hostile states” narrative from a perspective distinct from the previous approaches of “unification through war” and “unification through revolution.”



2. The Essence of DPRK’s Policy Shift: Extended Deterrence and the “End of the Kim Jong Un Regime”


Although North Korea’s policy change towards ROK evolves within the intricate interplay of domestic policy, inter-Korean relations, and international politics, it is especially important to focus on the aspect of international politics.


The Biden administration’s 2022 National Defense Strategy, which includes the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), outlines the United States’ tailored approach to counter North Korea’s threats. The strategy asserts that any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies would be “unacceptable” and will lead to “the end of that regime,” and that “there is no scenario in which the Kim regime could employ nuclear weapons and survive.” In response, the DPRK Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, “The U.S., the one and only country in the world which sets it as a main target of nuclear strategy to ‘topple the government’ of a sovereign state, must be prepared for paying an equal price for its attempt to use military forces against the DPRK” (KCNA 2022/10/31). Additionally, during the 6th Plenary of the 8th WPK Central Committee, Kim Jong Un labelled South Korea as an “undoubted enemy” and mentioned his commitment to carry out the second mission, “which will not be for defense” (Rodong Sinmun 2023/1/1). This shift in focus to South Korea as a target for nuclear attack is seen as a response to North Korea’s actual inability to effectively deter the U.S. through nuclear means.


After the ROK-U.S. Summit on April 26, 2023, and the Washington Declaration, a more comprehensive series of response followed. Kim Yo Jong, in her April 29 statement released on KCNA, emphasized three aspects: (1) the Washington Declaration is a “typical product of [ROK-U.S.’] extreme anti-DPRK hostile policy reflecting the most hostile and aggressive will of action, which “compelled [DPRK] to take more decisive action … to deal with the new security environment,” (2) “the chief executive of the enemy state [President Biden] officially and personally used the word ‘the end of regime’ under the eyes of the world,” and (3) the necessity for North Korea to strengthen its nuclear war deterrent and further refine the second mission. North Korea also held national rallies denouncing the ROK and U.S., and burned effigies of President Biden and President Yoon.


Subsequent DPRK actions always incorporate the phrase “end of regime.” In his address at the 9th Session of the 14th SPA, Kim Jong Un cited this term while explaining the inclusion of the Nuclear Forces Policy Law in North Korea’s constitution.


The U.S., which had already set it as its state policy to physically remove our state and even ignited a war to do so in the last century, has maximized its nuclear war threats to our Republic by resuming the large-scale nuclear war joint drills with clear aggressive nature and putting the deployment of its strategic nuclear assets near the Korean peninsula on a permanent basis after starting the operation of the “Nuclear Consultative Group” aimed at using nuclear weapons against the DPRK in collusion with the “Republic of Korea”, while frequently revising the aggression war scenario for realizing the “end of regime” in the DPRK (KCNA 2023/9/28).


The fundamental turnabout in their policy towards South Korea, revealed in the 9th Enlarged Plenum of the 8th WPK Central Committee, also points to Biden’s “end of regime” strategy.


Since the U.S. government first introduced the term “end of regime” in October 2022, North Korea has labeled South Korea as an enemy state, not a part of one nation, to which they could carry out the second mission. As the U.S. consistently displays its ability to actualize the “end of regime” scenario, North Korea is increasingly emphasizing its nuclear capabilities as a key aspect of its second mission, primarily directed at South Korea, despite its rhetorical focus on the first mission to deter Washington.


This shift is occurring within the context of North Korea’s unique approach to nuclear threat strategy. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, both possessing reliable second-strike capabilities as a countermeasure to a potential nuclear attack, achieved Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). This led them to consciously avoid direct, physical conflict to prevent mutual annihilation. A key aspect of this “Nuclear Revolution” was the mutual vulnerability inherent in MAD (Jervis 1989, 23-38). Therefore, for North Korea to achieve strategic stability in its relations with the U.S. by ensuring MAD, it needs the capability to devastate population centers in the U.S., essentially holding the lives and assets of numerous people as leverage.


However, the disparity in nuclear capabilities between the U.S. and DPRK is vast. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reports that the U.S. has 1,770 deployed nuclear warheads and 1,938 in central storage. In contrast, North Korea reportedly has around 30 nuclear warheads, none of which are deployed, making its arsenal roughly 1/100th the size of the U.S.’s. The exact number of North Korean tactical nuclear warheads ready for battlefield use remains uncertain, while the U.S. has 100 deployed across the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states, including Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Türkiye, plus 100 on the U.S. mainland. Currently, the U.S. is replacing its older B61-3 and B61-4 warheads with the more advanced B61-12. This new model, equipped with a guided tail-kit, can use lower yields to target underground facilities with reduced radioactive fallout. The B61-12 can be deployed not only by B-2 bombers but also by the 5th generation F-35A stealth combat aircraft, allowing for preemptive strikes on command and control centers and vital military installations (SIPRI 2023, 247-259).


The U.S. is further advancing its security strategy by building a complex defense infrastructure. This involves developing an “integrated deterrence” strategy that spans across military (including land, air, maritime, cyber, and space) and non-military (encompassing economic, technological, and informational) domains, combines nuclear and conventional forces, and prepares for grey zone warfare (White House 2022/10/12, 22). Clearly, the heyday of nuclear dominance is rapidly declining. The “end-of-regime” strategy is operational within this broader framework of integrated deterrence, expected to be much more efficient and effective (U.S. Department of Defense 2022/10/27, 8).


In light of the expanding U.S. military capabilities, the foremost concern for North Korea is the safety and survival of its “Supreme Leader.” An article in Rodong Sinmun (2024/2/2) by Ri Ji Song, a researcher from the DPRK Society for International Politics Study, referenced the U.S. plan to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons in the UK, as mentioned by The Telegraph. In this article, he voiced concerns over the deployment of B-2 stealth nuclear strategic bombers in Guam, which are “capable of carrying and operating B61-12” and can “be used for any future operation in the Korean peninsula.” This has reportedly led to a call for the strengthening of North Korea’s own deterrent capabilities.


Realistically, North Korea currently lacks the ability to pose a credible threat to the United States by targeting key military and strategic non-military facilities integral to U.S. national interests. The concept of mutual vulnerability is not applicable as North Korea lacks second-strike capabilities, and hence is unable to create a stable mutual deterrence. Owing to these obvious constraints, North Korea is focusing more on its nuclear force’s second mission, the “annihilation of ROK,” rather than its first mission. This rhetoric of “annihilation” is North Korea’s unique approach to countering the U.S.’s “end of regime” extended deterrence strategy with a nuclear threat strategy of its own. In doing so, it accentuates the destruction of South Korea, which it views as a hostile country, rather than part of a single nation.



3. ROK’s North Korea Policy: Enhancing Integrated Deterrence and Proposing Comprehensive Assurance for the Survival of the Denuclearized Regime


Historically, North Korea has shaped its policy towards the ROK with the aim of strengthening its “revolutionary forces” across North Korean, South Korean, and international fronts. To respond effectively to North Korea’s recent policy shift that incorporates a tailored nuclear threat, South Korea must make prudent choice to contribute to the peace and prosperity of both the Peninsula and the Indo-Pacific region. This necessitates moving beyond a simplistic understanding of the interplay between North Korea’s internal political dynamics, changes in inter-Korean relations, and wider geopolitical considerations. It is essential to discern North Korea’s policy priorities and develop innovative strategies for engaging with the regime.


First, it is crucial to reinforce extended deterrence, a concept that aligns with the U.S.’s strategy of integrated deterrence. Both the Washington Declaration and the Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) have emphasized the significance of developing and deploying the B61-12 warhead alongside the F-35 fighter aircraft. This advancement has lent greater credibility to the notion of “end of regime,” thereby elevating North Korea’s sense of concern. Unlike the MAD strategy during the Cold War, where the U.S. and the Soviet Union targeted each other’s extensive military, urban, and industrial bases and centers, the idea of regime collapse is evidently a much more potent deterrent for North Korea.


Given this situation, the ongoing debate in South Korea regarding the need for nuclear armament is outdated. Moreover, considering the current strategic climate of Europe and the Indo-Pacific, reintroducing tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula is not a viable option. South Korea should leverage the U.S.’s efforts in creating an integrated deterrence framework through the NCG. Upgrading its security infrastructure with advanced technology is essential to minimize the costs of efforts required to counter Pyongyang’s growing nuclear threats, while also preparing for the impending era of algorithmic warfare.


Secondly, to prompt Pyongyang to reevaluate its nuclear-based survival strategy, South Korea’s approach should aim not only at practically neutralizing the primary and secondary objectives of North Korea’’s nuclear forces, but also at increasing the cost-effectiveness of denuclearization. As the integrated extended deterrence between ROK and the U.S. strengthens, the utility of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is bound to diminish, regardless of its advancements. However, breaking North Korea out of this vicious cycle is hardly attainable without assurances that the regime can survive without nuclear capabilities. North Korea is depleting its resources on outdated nuclear development while still under severe economic sanctions. With this, achieving the goal declared in its Five-Year Plan, intended to be accomplished before the 9th WPK Central Committee meeting in 2025, is virtually impossible. North Korea’s attempt to boost its diplomatic clout by increasing military provocations will likely backfire, as U.S. and ROK will further strengthen their deterrence capability. In other words, North Korea must understand that no matter how intense its provocations become, it will merely result in an unbreakable cycle of ever-strengthening ROK-U.S. integrated deterrence.


North Korea affirmed its commitment to continuing nuclear weapons development for survival at the 8th WPK meeting in 2021. Now, South Korea must offer an alternative “third way” for North Korea. This approach should ensure the survival rights of a denuclearized regime. Establishing security guarantee measures, not only at the bilateral level (e.g. DPRK-ROK, DPRK-U.S.), but also via multilateral arrangements that include China, Russia, Japan, and ultimately at a global scale through organizations like the United Nations, are critical.


Thirdly, it is imperative for South Korea to establish a comprehensive framework that supports the DPRK’s development rights. The primary domestic political issue for the regime, as they approach the 9th WPK Central Committee meeting in 2025, is to secure a future in economic development. Currently, their domestic policy is centered on the “Frontal Breakthrough” strategy, announced during the 5th plenary of the 7th WPK Central Committee in 2020, which emphasizes self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Despite attempts to modestly expand trade and exchanges with Russia and China, the strategy remains limited in scope and fails to extend beyond its initial objective. The dire state of North Korea’s economy starkly highlights the limitations of this self-reliance approach. North Korea’s economic reform and opening, similar to China’s remarkable economic growth under Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door Policy for nearly four decades, appears inevitable if it seeks to become a prosperous state. The international community needs to develop a collaborative economic model that offers a viable “third way” for the North Korean regime to pursue its version of opening and reform.


Finally, it is crucial to fully support the transition of a denuclearized DPRK into an information-knowledge state. The new standard of civilization in 21st century is informatization and intelligentization, driven by the development of cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), and North Korea is no different. To ensure its survival, North Korea should aim for robust economic growth through a tailored Open Door Policy, choosing a survival strategy in a denuclearized context. As indicated by 21st-century evolutionary biology, an entity that does not engage in self-organization and coevolution loses its vitality. Hence, international collaboration is critical to assist North Korea in finding a new path for self-organization and coevolution.


Therefore, the development of a four-dimensional strategy, which includes (1) bolstering South Korean model of integrated deterrence, (2) ensuring survival of a nuclear-free regime, (3) promoting economic development in a denuclearized North Korea, and (4) collectively supporting Pyongyang’s informatization and intellectualization to align with the 21st-century global standards, is essential. This strategy will enable the Korean Peninsula to shift from conversations centered on the “end of the regime” and the “destruction of the ROK,” towards creating a peaceful and prosperous region.  





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Young-Sun HA is the Chairman of the EAI and a Professor Emeritus at Seoul National University.

Yang-Gyu KIM is the Executive Director of the EAI and a Lecturer of Department of Political Science and International Relations at Seoul National University.



Typeset by: Jisoo Park, Research Associate
    For inquiries: 02 2277 1683 (ext. 208) | jspark@eai.or.kr


Inter-Korean Relations and Unification