March 11, 2024

Escalating inter-Korea tensions and what lies ahead


By Kenji Yoshida

This article was first published in The Diplomat on 4 March 2024.

As the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East grind on, another conflict brews miles away in East Asia. 

Wrapping up 2023, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered his military to “thoroughly annihilate” South Korea and the United States if provoked. The saber-rattling continued as Pyongyang fired some 350 artillery shells into a disputed sea in January, followed by a barrage of missile tests in recent weeks. 

So far, South Korea’s response has been fighting fire with fire. President Yoon Suk-yeol has vowed that its retaliation will be “multiple times stronger” should the North take belligerent actions. Seoul’s deepening military pact with Washington and Tokyo since the Camp David Summit last August has amplified the Yoon administration’s resolve.

Rising tension in the Korean Peninsula has caused many experts to speculate on what lies ahead. Two leading experts in the United States argued that the Kim regime has made a “strategic decision” to wage war, whereas an ex-U.S. diplomat warned of a possible nuclear crisis in the region. 

Amid the many uncertainties, The Diplomat spoke to Moon Chung-in, former special adviser for diplomacy and national security to President Moon Jae-in (no relation). Moon, now the James Laney Distinguished Professor at Yonsei University and vice chair of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, shared his views on the recent developments with The Diplomat.

Bracing for War? 

Kim Jong Un’s warmongering is worsening by the day. This year alone, the regime has launched multiple cruise and ballistic missiles from its western coast, one of which is said to have been topped with a hypersonic glide vehicle. 

In the backdrop is Pyongyang’s attempt to sway South Korea’s legislative elections in April and the U.S. presidential election in November by showcasing its advanced military capabilities. 

The Diplomat asked Moon if Kim’s military pursuits were merely an attention-seeking maneuver or a forecast of a serious collision course with the South. 

“Verbal cues by both Kim Jong Un and Yoon Suk-yeol indicate that planned, large-scale armed conflict between the two Koreas is unlikely,” Moon said.  

“Take, for instance, Kim’s speech from the December 2023 plenary meeting or one from early January. While his language is bellicose in nature, everything is conditional. In other words, Pyongyang’s actions are contingent upon the actions of Seoul and vice versa.” 

Moon, however, cautioned that an “accidental clash and escalation” is plausible given the fraying inter-Korean safety net and the strained dialogue between the two nations.

“Under Yoon’s presidency, the 9.19 Comprehensive Military Agreement between the two Koreas was terminated, a buffer zone in the West Sea was nullified, critical communications lines have been suspended, while rearmament in the demilitarized zone has restarted,” Moon pointed out, giving examples of how major cords of the safety net have snapped. 

“With vital guardrails and infrastructures torn down and shrinking confidence-building measures, unplanned clash and escalation cannot be ruled out,” Moon added. 

Continue reading in The Diplomat


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