Kim Jong-Un started 2021 by swearing to upgrade North Korea’s arsenal with a nuclear submarine and more missiles which can strike Japan. Meanwhile, South Korea’s leader Moon Jae-In is continuing his efforts to bring the North back into talks, despite repeated signals it is not interested.
By Duncan Bartlett for Japan Forward
Military strategists in North Korea receive all the resources they need to plot the complete destruction of Japan.
Although their work takes place in secret, they are directly supervised by the country’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-Un.
In early January, he was elevated to the position of general secretary of the Workers’ Party, a grandiose title previously held by his father.
This suggests that he has tightened his grip on power, despite acute problems within the North Korean economy.
State media obediently congratulated Kim on his new title, hailing him as “a peerless patriot to be lauded by the nation generation after generation.”
The official news agency KCNA has been emphasising his crucial military role, claiming that Kim has “strengthened the armed forces into an invincible and elite revolutionary army”.
In his most recent speech, Kim said: “New planning research for a nuclear-powered submarine has been completed and is to enter the final examination process.”
He added that his country should “further advance nuclear technology” and develop small-sized, lightweight nuclear warheads “to be applied differently depending on target subjects.”
Although North Korea is by no means invincible, especially in a potential conflict with the United States, it is aggressive and does have the capacity to cause a huge number of casualties.
It has frequently fired missiles into the Sea of Japan and is regarded by Japan’s Self Defence Force as the preeminent threat to national security.
More than a million North Korean people are under arms in the military. It also possesses enough plutonium to wipe Japan off the map, according to nuclear scientist Dr Siegfried Hecker, a professor at Stanford University, who has frequently visited the country.
He believes it can now “reach most of Japan with nuclear-tipped missiles.”
And although he doubts it currently has the ability to strike the US, he says it is “continuing to work in that direction.”
America the enemy
Mr Kim’s January speech identified the United States as his country’s “biggest enemy.”
In a warning to President elect Biden, he said: “No matter who is in power, the true nature of the US and its fundamental policies towards North Korea never change.”
Mr Biden has previously described Kim Jong-Un as “a thug” and criticised Donald Trump for holding meetings with him, including one conducted in the glare of the TV cameras in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
Traditionally, the US has worked with its allies – South Korea and Japan – to try to keep North Korea in check, although Trump disrupted this approach, with little regard to the delicate security framework of the region.
Since the summits with Trump came to an end, North Korea’s relationship with China has strengthened. China remains its largest trading partner and closest ally.
Kim Jong-Un has said he hopes 2021 will mark “a new chapter in DPRK-China friendship, with socialism as its core.”
He has received a message of congratulation on his promotion from Xi Jinping, who said he hopes North Korea can “attain greater success in socialist development” under Kim’s leadership.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in continues to try to increase inter-Korean engagement, just as he has done throughout his time in office.
Mr Moon said in his 2021 new year speech that “the two Koreas should join hands together and prove that a peaceful and prosperous Korean Peninsula can also contribute to the international community.”
Mr Moon told his audience that there is a link in between his quest to create a “peaceful peninsula free of war and nuclear weapons” and the new arrival in the White House.
He said the South Korean government hopes to strengthen its alliance with the US under Biden and at the same time “will make a final effort to achieve a major breakthrough in the stalled North Korea-U.S. talks and inter-Korean dialogue.”
The problem is that the South’s longing for peace and cooperation seems to have little appeal to the North, which last year used explosives to destroy a building which the two sides had been using for negotiations.
At its January political meeting in Pyongyang, the North said that hopes for reunification with the South are now more distant than they were before the Panmunjom Declaration, which was signed in 2018.
At that time, President Moon hailed the deal as a major step forward in the process of rapprochement.
President Moon is also offering to help North Korea with vaccinations against coronavirus and said he can hold talks in person, or virtually, with Kim Jong-un, on such matters.
However, North Korea is not officially acknowledging its Covid-19 problems. Although Kim has admitted the economy is under stress, he blames this on sanctions, rather than the pandemic.
Yet even though the North says that it has not had a single confirmed coronavirus case, it has locked down entire cities such as Kaesong, Hyesan, Nampo, and Pyongyang, according to Mitch Shin, writing in The Diplomat.
North Korea’s strategy appears to be to ignore the South as far as possible and instead to use its weapons as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the United States.
It hopes that by doing this, it can win a relaxation of sanctions.
It also expects an end to joint military exercises, a US withdrawal from the peninsula and no more criticism of its human rights abuses.
There is nothing to suggest that the Biden administration has any inclination to bow to such demands.
However, the new president faces many pressing domestic problems, so he has limited scope to work on a new foreign policy agenda, to repair the damage done by Trump.
One decision Mr Biden will have to make quickly is whether to authorise the joint US-South Korea drills, which are due to take place this spring.
The Japanese government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga would no doubt like the exercises to go ahead.
They could act as a display of unity and strength against an aggressive North Korea, which constantly tries to weaken the alliances of its enemies.
However, with Mr Moon at the helm, there’s not much enthusiasm in South Korea to join the Americans in mobilising their armed forces to counter the threat of a dangerous neighbour.
Duncan Bartlett is a regular contributor to Japan Forward and Research Associate at SOAS China Institute, University of London. He is also Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and runs the news portal, Japan Story.