Brothers No More: Inter-Korean relations in the New Era

In an unprecedented move Kim jong-un has ordered the demolition of the Arch of Reunification located in Pyongyang.

In an unprecedented move Kim jong-un has ordered the demolition of the Arch of Reunification (조국통일3대헌장기념탑) located in Pyongyang. The demolition of this symbolic monument of friendship between the Korean people comes at a time of a major policy shift on the Korean Peninsula.

Unprecedented Times

The past year has witnessed an era of unprecedented hostility on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea’s frequent missile tests, the US-Japan-ROK joint military drills, formation of the Nuclear Consultation Group and the launch of the Malligyong-I (만리경 1호) reconnaissance satellite have been testament to this period of hostility. The growing provocations and uncertainty surrounding the Peninsula has severely jeopardised the security and stability of not just the Northeast Asian region but also has threatened the Indo-Pacific. While animosity and instability is not something novel for the Korean Peninsula, what has made this episode of hostility truly unprecedented has been the stance that the North Korean regime has taken towards cooperation with South Korea.

Brothers No More

Since the 6th plenary session of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (조선로동당 중앙위원회 제8기 제6차전원회의) held at the end of 2022, North Korea has defined its worldview in what the regime refers to as the “New Era.” This rhetoric of the New Era has transferred into the Expanded meeting of the 9th plenary session of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (조선로동당 중앙위원회 제8기 제9차전원회의 확대회의) recently held at the end of last year where in his speech Kim Jong Un has referred to 2023 as “an year of great transformation having both internal and external challenges.” Claiming war to be a “reality and not an abstract concept”, Kim Jong Un denounced the “dangerous security environment which is on the verge of nuclear war.” A striking shift can be seen in Kim Jong Un’s statement on the question of unification and cooperation with South Korea. In his address, Kim Jong Un stated that South Korea has focused on “regime collapse and absorbed unification, a stance that has broadly remained unchanged even though the Republic of Korea has undergone 10 different government changes.” Calling for the urgent need to establish a “new foundation for North-South relations and unification policy,” Kim Jong Un stated that “it is a mistake that we consider unification and reconciliation with people who see us as the main enemy and seek regime collapse and absorbed unification.” While enmity between the two countries is not something alien to the Korean Peninsula, the mention of the word “people” (족속) is a shift away from the policies of the past. Since the time of Kim Il Sung, North Korea has focused on furthering relations between the Korean people irrespective of the government in power in South Korea. In popular North Korean media the terms brothers (형제) and compatriots (동포) have been used to refer to the South Korean people, emphasising on the need for unification of the Korean Peninsula. While the ways to approach unification have experienced change in North Korea’s policy making, moving from unification through military means to peaceful coexistence post 1991, the idea of a unified Korea has been kept alive since Kim Il Sung. While criticisms have been made against the South Korean governments of the past calling them “puppet regimes” in times of heightened tensions, they were never targeted towards the South Korean people as a whole. In this sense, the indication towards such a severing of ties has been unprecedented. The recent order of the demolition of the Arch of Reunification has only solidified these concerns.

The Way Out

Unification of the Korean Peninsula has always been a distant dream, however, the rhetoric of brotherly love furthered by the North has always been a major starting point of cooperation and peace on the Korean Peninsula. The recent disregard for cooperation with the South has only exacerbated concerns that the hostility on the Korean Peninsula might lead to a war-like situation. While it may seem otherwise to the naked eye, cooperation, for how North Korea sees it in its New Era, is not something that has been ruled out completely. Even in the boastful rhetoric, rationality and reasoning accompanies provocations and brinkmanship. In the report on the Expanded meeting of the 8th 9th plenary session of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, North Korea has maintained that the “radical development of national defence has been undertaken after reevaluating dangerous security environment” and the “anti communist conflict initiative undertaken by the United States and its allies” in the region. The statements of “responding overwhelmingly” have been reasoned through the presence and activities of the trilateral arrangement as a hostile force.

While the statements may be termed as rhetorical in nature aimed at domestic and international maneuvering, they are not completely unfounded. North Korea’s perceptions over the years in relation with the United States and its allies have been shaped through its historical conditioning which includes events like the Korean War and the hostile relations between the United States and North Korea ever since. Undoubtedly, there is a sense of paranoia that has developed as a result of this, the North Korean regime has often acted in response to these perceived threats. In this sense, a major argument in finding a way out of the quagmire on the Korean Peninsula can be a mitigation of these threats that North Korea perceives as existential in nature. Albeit rarely furthered in the true sense, cooperation and confidence building with North Korea has seen the highest points of relations achieved on the Korean Peninsula. However, rhetorical volleys of terms like “principal enemy” only prove to be impediments to achieving peace between the two Koreas.

The current crisis brewing on the Korean Peninsula can lead to devastating results if not dealt with effectively and at the earliest. A possible nuclear test by North Korea can lead to further miniaturisation of its nuclear warheads which can pose a severe threat to United States’ strategic assets and the security of its allies in the region. This calls for a shift in policy of the United States and its allies. The policy of retaliation and coercion has only worsened the situation over the years. Until and unless North Korea is brought to the negotiations table its Nuclear Weapons Programme is set to grow unabated. It is in the national interest of Washington and Seoul to achieve a possible channel of peace with Pyongyang at the earliest. South Korea has historically been a major harbinger of peace in the region. As a responsible and democratic nation, it is imperative for South Korea to recognise peace as a prerequisite for achieving its national interests and act towards making peaceful arrangements possible on the Korean Peninsula. Washington and Seoul must realise that waiting for another major crisis to emerge on the Korean Peninsula to pursue serious negotiations will be too late of a venture. Negotiations and talks are inevitable when it comes to dealing with North Korea, the major objective for the United States and South Korea must be to reach the negotiation table on their own terms rather than being dictated by the emergence of a new crisis.

Gagan Hitkari
Gagan Hitkari
Gagan Hitkari is a PhD candidate at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. He is also a Non-resident James A Kelly Korea Fellow at the Pacific Forum, Hawaii, US. His research interests include Disarmament, Nuclear diplomacy, India's foreign policy, Inter-Korean relations and North Korea's nuclear policy, Environmental Security and Peace building.