North Korea’s approach toward South Korea has swayed widely over the past decades. While it has often called the South its “sworn” and “principal enemy” and threatened to “annihilate” it with nuclear weapons, at times it has also engaged in dialogue and discussed a possible reunification.
But, according to state media reports on Tuesday, North Korea has formally abandoned peaceful reunification as a key policy goal. In announcing the drastic shift, the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said the North no longer saw the South as “the partner of reconciliation and reunification” but instead as an enemy that must be subjugated, if necessary, through a nuclear war.
In recent decades, the reunification of the two Koreas has become increasingly unlikely as the economic gap between them widened and mutual enmity deepened.
Mr. Kim unveiled his new stance on South Korea in a party meeting at the end of last month and in a speech he gave to the North’s rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, on Monday.
He also ordered the revision of the North’s constitution, as well as its propaganda guidelines, to remove references to “peaceful reunification,” “great national unity” or to South Koreans as “fellow countrymen” and to instill in his people the view that the South was “a foreign country” and “the most hostile state.”
“We can specify in our constitution the issue of completely occupying, subjugating and reclaiming the ROK and annexing it as a part of the territory of our republic in case a war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Kim said, using the abbreviation of the South’s official name, the Republic of Korea.
He has been building toward his new policy in recent months, criticizing South Korea’s deepening military alliance with Washington under its conservative president, Yoon Suk Yeol. Mr. Kim called the expansion of joint military drills between the allies a dangerous provocation and cited it as a justification for producing more nuclear weapons and threatening to use them against the South.
“We do not want war, but we also have no intention of avoiding it,” he said. “If the enemies ignite a war, our republic will resolutely punish the enemies by mobilizing all its military forces, including nuclear weapons.”
Endorsing Mr. Kim’s new policy, the North Korean parliament dismantled all government agencies charged with promoting exchanges with the South, state media said. In the past week, the North has also shut down radio broadcasts and propaganda websites promoting Korean reunification, according to South Korean officials. Mr. Kim also ordered the removal of propaganda monuments dedicated to the same cause.
On Tuesday, Mr. Yoon, the South Korean leader, criticized Mr. Kim’s new policy “as anti-nation” and “anti-history.”
The Korean Peninsula was divided into the pro-Soviet North and the pro-U.S. South at the end of World War II. The two Koreas fought the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, which ended in a truce, leaving the two nations technically in an ongoing state of war. Although they have since frequently accused each other of plotting an invasion, both sides called for peaceful reunification — until Mr. Kim’s policy shift.
“If the North provokes, we will exact manifold retaliation,” Mr. Yoon said on Tuesday in response to Mr. Kim’s speech. “Its threat to us to ‘choose between war and peace’ will no longer work.”
Mr. Kim has signaled a major shift in policy since his direct diplomacy with former President Donald J. Trump collapsed in 2019 without an agreement on rolling back the North’s nuclear weapons program or lifting international sanctions imposed against the North. He has since shunned dialogue with Washington and also expressed a deep mistrust of both the South’s liberals, who had brokered talks between him and Mr. Trump, and its current conservative government, which has called Pyongyang “an enemy” and warned of an “end of the regime” there if it uses nuclear weapons.
Instead, Mr. Kim has doubled down on expanding his country’s nuclear capabilities.
The shift from the North’s policy of peaceful reunification was an extension of the new diplomatic strategy, analysts said.
“The North has faced self-contradiction when it threatened to level and use its nuclear weapons against fellow countrymen,” said Hong Min, a senior analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. “That contradiction is removed when the North gives up on the idea of South-North reunification and defines the South as an enemy state with which it had no diplomatic ties and was in a state of war.”