North Korea’s Push for Reunification Isn’t Just Empty Rhetoric

In the final months of his single term in office, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is making a strong push to formally end the Korean War. As part of his efforts, Moon is reportedly seeking a summit between the leaders of the four main participants in the conflict—the United States, China and the two Koreas—to coincide with the Winter Olympics in Beijing. In response, the North has signaled its openness to the proposal, provided its conditions are met. 

Setting aside for a moment the policy debate over whether that would be a good idea, it is worth considering the logical end of such a peace treaty: Korean reunification. While many in the West assume reunification of the two Koreas would occur on Seoul’s terms, history and recent developments on the peninsula suggest that might not be the case. Since the Korean War ended with a truce in 1953, North Korea has never given up its goal of reunifying the peninsula on its own terms.

In July 2012, months after Kim Jong Un ascended to power in Pyongyang, a revolutionary hymn dedicated to Kim began airing on North Korean state-run media. Entitled “Onwards Toward the Final Victory,” the propaganda song’s lyrics emphasized national pride and loyalty to the Kim family regime: “Let’s go, Great Baekdu-mountain nation, by the calling of the political party. Onward, onward to the final victory.” 

While foreigners may debate what “final victory” means, North Koreans know that it implies the reunification of the Korean Peninsula under Pyongyang’s red banner. Since the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, the “final victory” of reunification has been the basis of Pyongyang’s long-term strategic ambitions. Under Kim, this revolutionary idea has not faded away. On the contrary, the 37-year-old dictator has prioritized it in his public statements.

The Kim family regime’s sacred goal of reunifying the two Koreas began with the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950. In a letter to Joseph Stalin dated Aug. 31 of that year, North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung, wrote, “We are fully determined to fight until final victory in the battle against the Americans and the other interventionists striving to again enslave Korea.” 

More than 70 years later, North Korean political elites have not abandoned this nationalistic fervor for reunification, nor has Pyongyang relinquished its claim as the sole legitimate government on the peninsula. For example, in April 2019, North Korea’s state-run media began referring to Kim Jong Un as the “Supreme Representative of all the Korean People.” A 2017 North Korean propaganda book put it bluntly: “Korea’s reunification is inevitable because, first, putting an end to domination and intervention by outside forces and reunifying the divided country into one is the aspiration and demand of all the Korean people.”

Reunification occupies a central place in North Korea’s utopian ideology of total self-reliance, known as Juche, which was first developed by Kim Il Sung. In the Kim regime’s view, the independence and national sovereignty of the Korean people can never be fully achieved unless they reunify their two countries into one ethno-state and completely remove the U.S military presence from the peninsula. Under Kim Jong Un’s rule, self-reliance has been even further reinvigorated as the ideological basis of the DPRK’s national dignity and identity.  

While many in the West assume Korean reunification would occur on Seoul’s terms, history and recent developments on the peninsula suggest that might not be the case.

Importantly, Kim’s emphasis on achieving reunification is not limited to nationalistic rhetoric and ideology. North Korea’s recent military development suggests that the regime aims to do more than simply ensure its survival. Under Kim, the Korean People’s Army has emphasized the advancement of asymmetric capabilities, such as special operations forces, cyberattacks and intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

According to a recently published report from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, the KPA does not currently have the capability to forcibly reunify the Korean Peninsula, “but Kim’s forces are developing capabilities that will provide a wider range of asymmetric options to menace and deter his regional adversaries, quickly escalate any conflict off the peninsula, and severely complicate the environment for military operations in the region.” Aside from its robust nuclear arsenal and sophisticated cyber capabilities, North Korea’s recent testing of a hypersonic missile, which would likely evade missile defense systems, could further tilt the balance of military power on the peninsula in Pyongyang’s favor. 

U.S. military leaders have recently begun to take note of North Korea’s reunification strategy. As the DIA report clearly states, “The North Korean military, once considered a threat that would be confined to the 20th century, has never abandoned its ambition of dominating the peninsula and, if possible, reunifying it under Pyongyang’s rule.” A 2017 report to Congress from the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense warned that the regime’s recent rhetoric and activities suggest it “seeks to achieve a capability that goes beyond minimal deterrence to one that could provide greater freedom of action for North Korean aggression or coercion against its neighbors.” Whether U.S. policymakers will act on these reports remains to be seen, but the Pentagon appears willing to at least acknowledge the destructive nature of the Kim family regime’s end goals. 

While it may seem absurd to posit that economically prosperous and culturally vibrant South Korea could ever be taken over by the totalitarian North, the prospect is not as implausible as Western observers might think. There have been increased calls in recent years from both sides of the 38th parallel to draw down U.S. troops, which could lead to a change in the status quo that ends with reunification under terms that Pyongyang finds acceptable. 

Indeed, Moon’s progressive administration has shown just how deferential Seoul can be to North Korea’s sensitivities. In 2018, the government abruptly ended financial support for the U.S.-Korea Institute, a think tank affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University that was deemed “too conservative.” Then, last year, Seoul imposed a ban on the common practice of South Korean activists and defectors from the North sending leaflets across the Demilitarized Zone via balloon, drawing fierce criticism that it was violating its own citizens’ rights in order to placate Pyongyang. Whether driven by expedience or ideological convergence, such infringements of basic freedoms to advance a political agenda would be right at home in Pyongyang.

None of this means that Kim’s forces are likely to invade South Korea anytime soon. The regime’s reunification strategy is a long-term goal, and despite swirling rumors concerning his health, the young Kim likely has many years left to rule the country. He may be calculating that current trends are working in his favor. The regime’s only ally, China, is continuing to grow its economy and modernize its military at a break-neck pace. In the future, it’s possible that a more empowered and risk-tolerant Beijing, working with an illiberal and accommodationist president in Seoul, could lend its backing to a reunification process on terms favorable to the Kim family regime.

Would the United States go along with such a plan? That may depend on who is in the White House. Recall that the Trump administration openly considered reducing U.S. troop levels in South Korea. If a similarly inclined U.S. president were to follow through on that in the future, it could further embolden Beijing and Pyongyang to carve out the peninsula as an anti-U.S. bulwark. 

All of this underscores the need for U.S policymakers to ignore the caricatures of North Korea as a cartoonish and irrational country and recognize the regime for what it is: a nuclear-armed and sophisticated asymmetric threat that has never abandoned its goal of Korean reunification. That means treading with extreme caution when it comes to Moon’s efforts to formally end the Korean War. Consistent U.S. engagement on this issue should prioritize long-term stability over a short-term peace declaration that gives credibility to Pyongyang’s drive for reunification. 

Benjamin R. Young is an assistant professor of homeland security and emergency preparedness in the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of “Guns, Guerillas, and the Great Leader: North Korea and the Third World,” and his writing has appeared in a range of media outlets and peer-reviewed scholarly journals. Follow him on Twitter @DubstepInDPRK.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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