Preventing a Worst-Case Scenario on the Korean Peninsula

The year 2024 has kicked off with a series of troubling escalations on the Korean Peninsula. For the first time since 2017, Pyongyang and Seoul have resumed provocative artillery drills in the West Sea – a flashpoint that has escalated into deadly military clashes in the past. North Korea also reached a major accomplishment in expanding its nuclear arsenal, successfully testing its solid-fuel hypersonic missile capability for the first time. 

And this week, tensions have heightened to another level, with Pyongyang declaring it is no longer pursuing peaceful reunification as a key policy goal.     

In a speech at the Supreme People’s Assembly on January 15, Kim Jong Un vowed to stop pursuing reconciliation, ordering that South Korea be redefined in the North Korean Constitution as “the number one hostile country” and “a permanent main enemy.” During the speech, Kim called for removing any language endorsing the notion of peaceful unification and national unity from the constitution. He also ordered the abolition of an existing railway connecting North Korea to South Korea and dismantled existing inter-Korean agencies devoted to promoting dialogue, economic cooperation, and people-to-people exchanges. 

The goals of pursuing peaceful unification and promoting national unity have been mutually recognized as unification principles by Pyongyang and Seoul since they signed the July 4 South-North Joint Communiqué of 1972, the first-ever written agreement between the two Koreas. Pyongyang’s redefinition of the inter-Korean relationship as a permanently adversarial relationship and its attempt to erase decades-long traces of inter-Korean exchanges have raised questions about whether North Korea has completely abandoned the principle of “peaceful reunification” in lieu of pursuing a reunification by force.