After describing its southern neighbor as a hostile entity and threatening to crush it with a nuclear weapon, North Korea has escalated its tone towards Seoul. Will it start a war this time?
A question discussed by the New York Times in its analysis, which began by talking about Pyongyang’s intensification of nuclear threats while the world is preoccupied with other wars, which led observers to an urgent debate regarding the motives of the North Korean leader. Kim Jong Kim.
The newspaper highlighted some of what North Korea has done recently towards escalation, noting that it fired hundreds of artillery shells into the waters near the South Korean border islands on January 5, and said last week that it no longer considers the South inhabited by “its countrymen.” Rather, it is an “enemy state” that will subjugate it through a nuclear weapon, and it revealed on Friday that it had tested an underwater nuclear drone to help repel US naval fleets.
The newspaper said in a report by writer Choi Sang Hoon that the drumbeat of new threats at a time when Washington and its allies are preoccupied with wars in Ukraine and the Middle East has made foreign officials and analysts wonder whether Kim has transcended positions and is planning to assert more military power.
The writer explained that for decades, an essential part of North Korea's rules of the game was to organize carefully planned and timed military provocations, some aimed at tightening internal discipline, others at drawing the attention of its neighbors and the United States, or all at once.
But for many close North Korea watchers, Kim's latest round of signals looks different, with some seeing this as evidence that North Korea has become disillusioned in seeking diplomatic engagement with the West, and some raising the possibility that the country may be planning an attack. Surprise in South Korea.
According to the writer, two veteran North Korea analysts – former State Department official Robert L. Carlin and nuclear scientist Siegfried S. Hecker-Alarm last week in an article published on the US-based website 38 North, stressing that Kim was done merely issuing threats, writing, “Kim Jong Un has made a strategic decision to go to war.”
Change the rules of the game
Analysts widely agree that North Korea has changed its position in recent years, driven by accumulating internal problems, including a dying economy and food and oil shortages, and frustrations in its foreign diplomacy, such as Kim's failure to reach a final solution to international sanctions through direct diplomacy with the president. Donald Trump.
Most see the recent rapprochement between North Korea and Russia – including the provision of artillery shells and missiles for use in Russia's war in Ukraine – as a game-changer in some way.
The writer explained that there is still stark disagreement about the direction in which Kim's new approach may lead, as many say that his ultimate goal remains not to wage war with South Korea, an ally of the United States, but rather for Washington to accept his country as a nuclear power by stimulating arms control talks.
The writer quoted Park Won-joon, a North Korea expert at Iowa Women's University in Seoul, as saying, “The North Koreans will not start a war unless they decide to become suicide bombers. They know very well that they cannot win the war, but they like their enemies to believe that they are capable of doing so.” “Because this could lead to communication and potential concessions, such as easing sanctions.”
The writer pointed out that analysts in China, North Korea's most important ally, were highly skeptical that Kim would go to war unless North Korea was attacked, as Professor Shi Yinhong of Renmin University in Beijing confirmed that North Korea's leadership was not irrational, and acted in the end. Ultimately out of self-preservation, and starting a war would work against this goal.
Others noted that North Korea could assert itself militarily — including through smaller conventional strikes and more aggressive weapons testing — without necessarily causing a lethal response.
Victor Cha, a Korea expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “There are many rungs on the escalation ladder that North Korea can climb without an all-out war. Kim is not confident in his abilities to deter an American reaction if he does something reckless.”
The writer stressed that if Kim wants to climb this ladder, modern history indicates that this may be the right time, as North Korea loves to destabilize its enemies in their most sensitive political moments. Both the United States and South Korea are scheduled to hold elections this year. This is an opportunity for Pyongyang, as it has proven in the past.
The writer attributed analyst Ko Jae-hong from the Seoul-based Institute for National Security Strategy to say that North Korea may also try to carry out provocations in the coming weeks, to try to help liberals who favor negotiations between the two Koreas win the parliamentary elections in South Korea in April.
He added, “North Korea hopes through provocations to spread fears among South Korean voters that increasing pressure on the North – as the current administration of President Yoon Suk-yul has tried to do – may 'lead to nuclear war.'”
Relations with Moscow and Beijing
According to the writer, since then North Korea has rejected repeated calls from Washington to hold talks, and has also refused to consider South Korea a partner in the dialogue, indicating since 2022 that it will use nuclear weapons against Seoul in war.
On the diplomatic front, Kim went out of his way to stress that he no longer views the United States as a crucial negotiating partner.
Officials say he has aggressively improved military relations with Russia, and in return likely received Russian promises of food aid and technological assistance for his weapons programs.
“I fear his self-confidence could lead him to misjudge with a small act, regardless of his intent, and escalate to war amid a tense standoff with the United States and its allies,” said Koh Yu-hwan, former head of the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
Regarding China’s position, the writer mentioned that it may exert pressure on Kim to discourage North Korea’s enthusiasm for launching a military adventure, especially since Beijing and Pyongyang have a treaty signed in 1961 that obligates each country to provide military assistance if the other country is attacked, but China has little incentive to be drawn in. To war in Korea right now.
A war on the Korean Peninsula would be disastrous for Beijing. John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, says – referring to the People's Republic of China – “A full half-century of peace in East Asia – a period of unprecedented growth for the People's Republic of China.” “It will stop suddenly.”
The magazine concluded its two reports by saying that the United States has long relied on Beijing to curb North Korea.