The Actions from Pyongyang Won’t Escalate Tension in Korean Peninsula

As the year 2024 starts, uncertainty looms over Northeast Asia. The deteriorating relationship between North and South Korea has hit a new rock bottom.

As the year 2024 starts, uncertainty looms over Northeast Asia.  The deteriorating relationship between North and South Korea has hit a new rock bottom.  In a recent conference at the Korean Workers’ Party, Kim Jong Un decided to give up the goal of reunification.  The Pyongyang government also shut down its agencies working for reunification. 

To further complicate the issue, Pyongyang’s artillery recently fired toward Yeonpyong Island, triggering the evacuation of the civilians on the island.  Yeonpyong Island was bombarded by the North Koreans back in 2010.  The aggressive action and the continuous testing of weapons, from missiles to nuclear weapons, keep the crisis in the Korean Peninsula brewing. 

However, even though North Korea has shifted its entire policy on South Korea while expressing aggression, the tension in the Korean Peninsula will not soar.  Looking beyond North Korea’s actions, the country still left signals indicating its willingness to maintain peace.  The North Korean government seeks more international support than ever in dealing with domestic issues.  Meanwhile, the external players of Northeast Asia have no interest in seeing escalation in the Korean Peninsula.   

Although expressing great aggression, the North Koreans have left many signals that they are unwilling to start a conflict.  In the recent bombardments towards Yeonpyong Island, the North Koreans have also released a statement claiming that the bombardment left even no indirect effect on the island. 

Reading through the statement issued by the government of North Korea, it became even more apparent that Pyongyang had no plan to provoke a conflict.  Its statement clearly states that it has no intention to expose threats towards “enemy states.”  The same thing can be said for the other weaponry tests.  The recent tests for the hypersonic missiles were declared as a part of the “regular activities” of the research administration.  These actions may still seem aggressive.  Yet, repeatedly, the words in these statements indicate the willingness to maintain the current status quo and not provoke a war. 

The DPRK government’s actions are more reactionary towards regional challenges.   For example, the most recent test of an underwater nuclear weapon system is just a response to the earlier military drills between South Korea, Japan, and the United States.  North Koreans claimed that this drill was a significant threat to North Korean security.  Hence, the Army took action in retaliation. 

The demonstrations of military development are more than dealing with external challenges; they also serve domestic propaganda purposes.  North Korea’s Sogun, the military-first policy, is still active and strong.  Meanwhile, military might is a straightforward way of expressing North Korea’s status as a “powerful socialist nation.”  In the last year, Kim Jong Un has been seen with his daughter at military-related events on multiple occasions.  One thing is sure–by taking his daughter to these events, the North Korean regime successfully built up the image that the regime will last long for future generations.   

North Koreans also understand its limitations.  The money pouch of the DPRK cannot afford a war.  The economy of North Korea has taken a significant hit due to the pandemic.  The country’s exports have decreased drastically during the pandemic.  This provided substantial limitations on income to the North Korean economy.  Kim Jong Un warned of a potential second “Arduous March.” during this time.  Although the country is recovering from the pandemic financial hit, especially trade restored with China, the Kim regime deeply understands its dire financial situation. 

Some signs also indicate North Korea’s willingness to work with external partners.  First, North Korea delivered a message of sympathy to the Japanese government regarding the recent earthquake in Japan.  This is one of the very rare times that the North Korean leadership directly communicated with their Japanese counterparts.  The North Koreans showed a willingness to communicate and open dialogues with Japan.  Meanwhile, the North Korea-China relationship keeps developing as the trade between the two nations is restored for the first time since the pandemic. 

North Koreans are also working closer with Moscow beyond the ammunition deal with the Russian government.  Russian tourist agencies in the Far East are organizing ski tours to North Korea, the first since the pandemic.  Meanwhile, the Rason Special Economic Zone has rejuvenated as a new frontline with Russian trade.  Foreign ships are coming into the port for the first time in decades.  These actions also proved that the North Korean government still seeks external trade and support to sustain itself.  It has no power or the resources to escalate in the region. 

The key players in Northeast Asia also lack interest in seeing the escalation of the region.  Although North Korea and South Korea’s relationship has deteriorated significantly, the Seoul government has also constrained its actions.  Although the DPRK bombarded Yeonpyong Island’s nearby area, the South Koreans only evacuated its citizens while only responding with 60 live rounds drills in the area and not reinforcing the area.  South Koreans also showed their unwillingness to provoke a conflict.

The external players have also expressed their concerns and lack of intention to move in the direction of war in the Korean Peninsula.  The United States is facing multiple challenges all over the region.  From Yemen to the Israel-Gaza War, the overstretch of power is a real issue for the Biden Administration.  Although the United States conducts military exercises near North Korea with Japan and South Korea, the military drill in the area has almost become a status quo as the drill not only addresses North Korea but also the rising military power of Beijing. 

Beijing’s relationship with the DPRK has gone towards a colder side, and the smoothing relationship between Washington and Beijing makes both parties have no intention of escalating the Korean Peninsula.  The Chinese government has made the usual comments regarding Korean issues, that China wishes all parties “will exercise calm and restraint.”  The usual statement further indicates China’s lack of interest in interference and the hope for maintaining the status quo. 

The instability of the Korean Peninsula is a long-lasting issue.  The North Korean expanding its arsenal drastically while shifting its policy with the Seoul government added new uncertainty.  However, these actions will not escalate tension in the Korean Peninsula—North Korea’s action undertones its reactionary nature and willingness to control the situation.  The country’s lack of financial resources and signs of working with others makes it further impossible for a war.  The outside parties’ seek for peace further made a crisis in the Peninsula impossible. 

Haoyu "Henry" Huang
Haoyu "Henry" Huang
Haoyu "Henry" Huang is an independent international affairs observer. He graduated with a Bachelors's degree from the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs in May 2020. He is from China and has previously lived and worked in the United States and Kazakhstan. He is currently based in Tanzania.