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Inter-Korean ties hit new low as NK calls Seoul 'primary foe'

Yoon vows to harshly 'punish' North Korea in the event of any provocations

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : Jan. 16, 2024 - 15:34

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This photo, carried by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on Tuesday, shows the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivering a speech at the 10th session of the 14th Supreme People's Assembly held in Pyongyang on Monday. (Yonhap) This photo, carried by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on Tuesday, shows the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivering a speech at the 10th session of the 14th Supreme People's Assembly held in Pyongyang on Monday. (Yonhap)

Inter-Korean relations hit a new low as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered the removal of all symbols of reconciliation and cooperation between the two Koreas, a highly volatile and intricate relationship that endured for over 50 years, despite changes in South Korean governments and hereditary power succession in North Korea.

South Korea will also be designated as the "primary foe and invariable principal enemy" in the North Korean constitution by Kim's order on Monday, North Korean state media reported Tuesday.

Hours later, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol lashed out at Kim, saying Seoul would take a stern response to any provocations from Pyongyang and vowed to mete out punishment multiple times harder.

"This acknowledges the fact that the North Korean regime recognizes its anti-national and anti-historical nature," Yoon said during a Cabinet meeting.

"Our military possesses overwhelming response capabilities. Should North Korea provoke us, we will respond with a punishment multiple times more severe.'"

The remarks came in the wake of Kim's policy speech at a meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly, where he defined inter-Korean relations as "hostile" and "belligerent," departing from the previous description as consanguineous or homogeneous.

In a nutshell, the North Korean leader ordered that practical measures be taken to completely eliminate the remnants of the bygone era that symbolized "reunification," "reconciliation" and "fellow countrymen."

To that end, Kim directed the inclusion of a clause in the constitution stipulating that "education should be intensified to instill the firm idea that the ROK is their primary foe and invariable principal enemy." The ROK refers to the acronym of South Korea's official name, the Republic of Korea.

Kim also ordered the inclusion of a clause in the constitution that states, "linguistic remnants misinterpreting the north and the south as fellow countrymen, such as '3,000-ri tapestry-like land' and '80 million compatriots,' should not be used in the political, ideological, mental and cultural life of our people."

North Korea's rubber-stamp parliament has also declared its decision to abolish three entities, including the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, which serves as the official channel for inter-Korean dialogue as a counterpart to South Korea's Unification Ministry.

The other entities to be abolished are the National Economic Cooperation Bureau, responsible for facilitating inter-Korean economic cooperation and exchanges, and the Kumgangsan International Tourism Administration, which oversees Mount Kumgang tourism projects.

Kim emphasized the urgency of promptly and rigorously implementing step-by-step measures aimed at completely cutting off inter-Korean connections in the border area. This entails the complete physical severance of the North Korean section of the Gyeongui Line, which previously symbolized inter-Korean exchange and cooperation.

Kim also gave instructions for the dismantling of the "Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification," located at the southern gateway to the capital city of Pyongyang. Erected in 2001 during the rule of the late leader Kim Jong-il, the monument commemorated Korean reunification proposals presented by the late founder, Kim Il-sung.

This image, captured from North Korea's Korean Central Television on Tuesday, shows a North Korean announcer reading a statement saying that North Korea has decided to abolish three agencies meant to promote inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation. (Yonhap) This image, captured from North Korea's Korean Central Television on Tuesday, shows a North Korean announcer reading a statement saying that North Korea has decided to abolish three agencies meant to promote inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation. (Yonhap)

Implications

Hong Min, a senior research fellow at the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification, stated that North Korea's measures signify its intention to pursue a "fundamental transformation" in inter-Korean relations.

"It transcends a mere tactical move to counter the current South Korean government or an opportunistic maneuver within a specific context. What we're witnessing is a fundamental transformation -- an enduring process that extends far beyond a one or two-time preparation, having been consistently laid out since 2019," Hong told The Korea Herald.

"Through his policy speech, Kim Jong-un ultimately aims to convey that South Korea is no longer a primary stakeholder in Korean Peninsula affairs. This can be seen as part of a series of steps to redefine Korean Peninsula affairs as confined to matters between North Korea and the US."

In 2018 and 2019, North Korea leveraged the inter-Korean dialogue to facilitate negotiations between the US and North Korea. However, it was soon clear that the trilateral framework didn't align with North Korea's strategic calculations. With the advent of the Yoon Suk Yeol government, South Korea is perceived as an impediment, leading to a strengthening of cooperation with the US and Japan to exert pressure.

"In an effort to exclude South Korea from Korean Peninsula affairs, there has been a systematic move to abandon 'intra-ethnic relations' and redefine it as a belligerent state under the armistice agreement," Hong said, explaining that South Korea is not a signee of the armistice.

"In essence, with the upcoming US presidential election, there seems to be a strong message directed at the future US administration that North Korea and the US are the primary stakeholders in Korean Peninsula affairs."

President Yoon Suk Yeol leads a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol leads a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

Looming clashes

Experts also warned that North Korea's disavowal of the Northern Limit Line, previously acknowledged through the now-defunct September 19 military agreement, raises the potential for abrupt inter-Korean military clashes in the West Sea. The abolishment of inter-Korean communication channels -- which served as a safety mechanism preventing further escalation of conflicts -- further heightens the risk.

In his speech, Kim underscored the necessity to "take legal steps to legitimately and correctly define the territorial sphere where the sovereignty of the DPRK as an independent socialist nation is exercised." The DPRK stands for the acronym of the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"As the southern border of our country has been clearly drawn, the illegal 'northern limit line' and any other boundary can never be tolerated, and if the ROK violates even 0.001 mm of our territorial land, air and waters, it will be considered a war provocation," Kim said.

Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Strategy at the Sejong Institute, said Kim clearly expressed a stance of not recognizing the NLL -- the de facto inter-Korean western maritime border -- in his policy speech.

"As a result, it is anticipated that North Korea will persist in a trajectory of breaking the status quo, while South Korea maintains a position of defending the NLL," Cheong told The Korea Herald. "The prospect of a local, armed conflict between the two Koreas appears to be a matter of time."

South Korea's Unification Ministry said Tuesday that North Korea has emphasized "hostile relations between the two countries," and has been consistently issuing threats and provocations against South Korea since late last year.

"North Korea's actions are politically provocative, aiming to sow division within our society and bear no distinction from the existing policy, as the country still ultimately pursues the goal of unification under communism by force," the ministry said.

"The government reiterates its firm commitment to respond strongly and sternly to North Korea's shameless attempts to misrepresent the state of inter-Korean relations and its aggressive pursuit of armed provocations."

In his policy speech, Kim underscored the importance of addressing the matter of "completely occupying, subjugating and reclaiming" South Korea and incorporating it as part of North Korean territory in the event of a war on the peninsula during the amendment of the country's constitution.

Cheong said, "Now, it seems that North Korea is reverting to the path of achieving reunification through force, which it had pursued before the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950."