The Korean Peninsula Will Remain Stable in 2024

As the year 2024 starts, uncertainty looms over Northeast Asia. North Korea’s artillery recently fired on Yeonpyong Island, triggering the evacuation of the civilians on the island.  Meanwhile, North Korean testing of nuclear weapons and missiles is more frequent than ever before.  We are witnessing an unprecedented level of aggression in Northeast Asia.

Meanwhile, politically, the Pyongyang government is shifting away from the long-standing policy on South Korea, from changing maps to closing down agencies related to reunification. The Kim regime released the signal that it won’t consider South Korea as its kin but as its biggest enemy.

As all of these happened in the first month of 2024, many are already giving a negative view of the future of the Korean Peninsula situation.  Some even say the conflict will become almost imminent in the Korean Peninsula in 2024.  However, looking through the fog and mist, the Korean Peninsula will remain stable in 2024.  The chance of a drastic escalation in the region remains very low.

North Korea’s policy is to maintain high pressure on the enemy.  In its official statement for the recent Korean Worker’s Party conference, it clearly stated that North Korea will address the “ power for power and head-on contest and pursue the high-handed and offensive toughest policy.”  The policy is a deterrence towards states that North Korea considers the enemy.  The United States returned to the Pacific, and the ruling Korean conservative-leaning government pushed the Pyongyang government to take more decisive actions to demonstrate its ability.

This aggressive policy is not something new.  North Korea has already established this policy back in 2022.  In a critical meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party in 2022, the regime established a strategy: power for power and head-on contest.  Two years later, the North Korean regime still closely follows this doctrine.  The offensive toughest policy and high-hand indicates maintaining maximum pressure in the Peninsula.

Therefore, North Korea’s actions are all within the policy framework.  The increasing pace of weapon testing is just a part of North Korea’s providing maximum pressure to the “enemies.”  Meanwhile, as North Koreans shift their vision of South Korea, this “power for power” policy becomes applicable to Seoul, hence why we witnessed the rising tension in the Korean Peninsula in 2024.

Behind these pompous words and apparent aggression, North Korea has left trances and signals that it is trying to control the escalation and avoid unnecessary provocation.  The recent tests for the hypersonic missiles were declared as a part of the “regular activities” of the research administration and not reacting towards the regional situation.  Another statement on a live ammunition drill on January 7 also clearly states that it has no intention to expose threats towards “enemy states.”  These statements all pointed towards the fact that the DPRK is unwilling to start a new round of conflicts.

North Koreans also hinted at their passivity in provoking a conflict.  In a recent Supreme People’s Assembly speech, Kim Jong Un clearly stated, “we will never unilaterally unleash a war if the enemies do not provoke us.”  The North Korean forces will only respond with full force should the enemies “ignite a war.”  This statement may recall the high-hand DPRK policy but also showed Pyongyang’s unwillingness to provoke a war directly.  North Koreans further portrayed themselves in reactionary roles in response to the aggression.  For example, The Pyongyang government also claimed that the most recent test of an underwater nuclear weapon system was just a response to earlier military drills.  Whether North Korea has true intentions or not, the passive attitude indicates that the DPRK is unwilling to escalate the situation.

On other fronts, North Korea indicated its willingness to work with external partners.  The chances of a full-on conflict become even lower with renewed political and economic interactions. North Korea delivered a message of sympathy to the Japanese government regarding the recent earthquake in Japan.  This was one of the first times the North Korean leadership directly communicated with their Japanese counterparts.  North Korean government also, for the first time, addressed the Japanese Prime Minister as “his excellency.”  The North Koreans showed an apparent willingness to communicate and open dialogues with Japan.

Economically, North Korea’s situation is far from ideal while it seeks expansion in external trade.  In a very recent meeting, Kim Jong Un also recognized that the rationing system has collapsed in North Korea. The government failed to provide basic necessities to its everyday people.  Kim Jong Un’s speech also critically focused on the DPRK’s economic situation.  Meanwhile, Russian tourist agencies in the Far East organize ski tours to North Korea, the first since the pandemic.  The trade between the DPRK and China has been restored to the pre-pandemic level.  These all indicate North Korea wants to improve its economy by working with external parties.  Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un’s speech proves that Pyongyang lacks the fundamental ability and resources to escalate the situation.

At the same time, South Korea also lacks the motivation to initiate drastic actions that will trigger instability. South Korea chose pressure methods in recent years to deal with the threat from the North.  However, this is more of a symbolic move than truly wanting a war in the Peninsula.  The military alliance between South Korea and the US was established years ago.  South Korea has never made the Kim regime bulge militarily throughout inter-Korea interactions.

However, South Korea also has left leverage to avoid provocation.  The president of South Korea said, “In case of provocations, I ask you to immediately retaliate in response and report it later.”  This statement also plays a part in South Korea’s high-hand policy towards the North, but it also sets up essential prerequisites for the action.  South Korea will only move based on who fires the first shot.  This is a clear sign that South Korea, like North Korea’s statement, does not want to fire the first shot and provoke a conflict.

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, the Korean Peninsula will remain stable in 2024.  North Korea’s policy has been consistent while hinted unwillingness to provocation.  The country’s lack of financial resources and signs of working with others makes it further impossible for a war.  South Koreans also lack the determination to seek further escalation, although it shows its strong will toward Peninsula affairs.  These combined elements together will secure stability in the Korean Peninsula.

[Photo by Aridd, via Wikimedia Commons]

Henry Huang serves as the Research and Communications Assistant at the DPRK Strategic Research Center in KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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