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Updated Jan 16, 2024, 3:12pm EST
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North Korea abandons unification goal with South Korea amid heightened tensions

Insights from 38 North, The Hankyoreh, and the Council on Foreign Relations

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Kim Jong Un
Sputnik/Vladimir Smirnov/Pool via REUTERS
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The News

All eyes are on the Korean peninsula as tensions flare to new heights between the North and South.

Pyongyang this week tested its first solid-fuel hypersonic missile, designed to travel five times the speed of sound and evade missile defense systems, after months of launching new technology including a spy satellite. On Tuesday, the country shut down its reunification agencies, a sign that leader Kim Jong Un is no longer interested in pursuing peaceful dialogue with Seoul.

Conflict between the North and South may prove to be a key security issue in 2024, with elections taking place in both South Korea and the United States.

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SIGNALS

Semafor Signals: Global insights on today's biggest stories.

Kim Jong Un may be preparing for war, some analysts believe

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Source:  
38 North

The tense situation in the Korean peninsula is “more dangerous than it has been” since the 1950s, according to two 38 North analysts, who warned that Kim “has made a strategic decision to go to war.” It remains unclear when Kim plans to “pull the trigger,” but developments in the North go “far beyond the routine warnings in Washington,” the authors opined. Contrary to what many U.S. foreign policy hawks believe, the Kim regime has spent decades trying to normalize relations with Washington as a buffer against Russia and China. Kim Jong Un aimed to achieve this at the 2018 Hanoi summit with former President Donald Trump, but its failure was a “traumatic loss” for Kim. Given Kim’s possible conviction that after decades of futile attempts, there is no way to engage the U.S., he could be planning to move in a surprise attack, the experts argued. Clinging to the belief that Kim could be deterred by the threat of Washington and Seoul’s counterattack “may be fatal.”

South Korean leader’s aggressive rhetoric starts ‘a new Cold War’

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Sources:  
KTN, The Hankyoreh

In his New Year’s address, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said he hopes to build “peace through strength” on the peninsula, doubling down on a commitment to increase military deterrence against the North. But Yoon’s critics argue that his aggressive rhetoric has only fueled tensions to dangerous new levels. A spokesperson for the opposition Democratic Party told KTN that by boasting about Seoul’s military capabilities while refusing to hold meetings with North Korean officials, Yoon has started “a new Cold War” on the peninsula. Experts agree that Yoon’s hawkish position on the North is because of his overconfidence in protection from the U.S., according to South Korea’s The Hankyoreh newspaper, but “it is reckless to be 100% confident that the U.S. government will open a nuclear umbrella for South Korea at the expense of American lives,” one analyst said.

‘Unpredictable’ Trump presidency unlikely to quell North-South tensions

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Sources:  
Council on Foreign Relations, Politico, NBC News

Former President Donald Trump values “political flexibility” and “immediate tactical political advantages,” but these characteristics — coupled with an entirely new geopolitical situation — means he is unlikely to mitigate a Korean crisis if elected this year, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. North Korea is now much more closely aligned with Russia as it supports its war in Ukraine, and Yoon is unlikely to cheer on any U.S. efforts to improve relations with Pyongyang. Korean strategists are also worried about Trump’s unpredictable decision-making strategies. While Trump has now proposed allowing North Korea to keep some of its nuclear weapons in exchange for economic remedies, a new book claims that Trump apparently proposed nuking North Korea in the wake of the Hanoi summit. “Trump’s unpredictable leadership would dramatically transform the inter-Korean security dynamic,” the Council argued, with major global security implications.

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