South Korean soldiers patrol along a barbed wire fenced area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea. Photo: AFP

SEOUL – South Korea’s point man on North Korea used blunt language today (June 27) when making clear that the latter state’s nuclear weapons are now aligning against Korean as well as US targets.

Speaking of Pyongyang’s atomic armory, Unification Minister Kwon Young-se said that “the shortening of range…from strategic to tactical…. suggests that the targets North Korea is keeping in mind include the Korean peninsula,” Yoon said.

Some in South Korea find it difficult to believe that the North would target a brother nation with weapons of mass destruction. For those, Kwon had a message.

“In that context, I want to make clear that those people who claim North Korean nuclear capability was not [aimed] against South Korea were wrong,” he said.

Kwon is the senior voice on North Korean affairs in the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol administration, which took office on May 10. Addressing foreign reporters in Seoul, he discussed the recent shift in emphasis in both Pyongyang’s intent and its recent testing regimen.

His statement puts an official stamp of approval on an opinion that has been much debated in Pyongyangology circles – one that overturns more than a decade of conventional wisdom.

Minister of Unification Kwon Young-se speaks to foreign reporters in Seoul, June 27, 2022. Photo: Andrew Salmon / Asia Times

Kim’s shifting nuclear stance

North Korea first test-detonated an atomic device in 2006. It consistently upgraded its kilotonnage in five more nuclear tests, the last of which was in 2017. Alongside that program, the state developed appropriate delivery vehicles: giant, Pacific-crossing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Questions still hang over whether North Korea possesses a working re-entry vehicle to safely carry its warheads through the earth’s atmosphere. Other questions hang over its guidance systems.

Even so, the widespread assessment of a 2017 ICMB test was that North Korea had acquired the capability to hit targets across the continental United States. US military bases deep in the Pacific – Hawaii and Guam – also fall within the range of these arms.

While Pyongyang does not disclose its strategy or doctrine, its prioritization of high-yield warheads and ICBMs had led to a widespread understanding that the aim of the nuclear program was to deter any attack by the United States.

However, Pyongyang announced at its 2021 Party Congress development plans for a new arsenal of weaponry, including tactical nuclear arms which are commonly delivered by battlefield artillery or rocket artillery systems.

Moreover, its testing regimen this year has been focused more on short and intermediate-range missiles, including train-launched projectiles, multiple launch rocket artillery systems and hypersonic ballistic missiles, than ICBMs.

What appears to be coming into view is the shift toward a more offensive, rather than simply deterrent, posture.

Moreover, a nuclear test is anticipated in the near future. Many analysts expect to it be a small, tactical-sized device.

North Korea watchers have been pointing out activities at the Punggye-ri underground test site, and Kwon confirmed that preparations are complete.

“North Korea is ready – this is not just our government position, but the international community’s position, including the US,” he said. “Everything is ready – what is left is a political decision.”

He offered no information on timing, however.

“Why North Korea has not engaged in a nuclear test so far – that is unknown to us,” he said.

With the Ukraine war capturing global attention, North Korea is most likely working to internal timetables as it tests engineering, systems and personnel of its rocket forces.

However, when it comes to the big bang – a nuclear test – the audience will be global.

“They will maximize the impact of any nuclear test,” Kwon said. “Just now, they are testing the waters.”

However, he would not be drawn on what this emergent threat means for South Korea’s defensive doctrine. He was also cagey on what Seoul’s response would be toward a seventh nuclear test.

“It is not easy” to deliver a “definite answer,” he said.  He refused to define a red line – “in this context, that would not be the smartest strategy” – but said, “any response will be more stern than what you have experienced in the recent past.”

Despite the frosty relations across the DMZ, Kwon’s overall stance toward North Korea could not be described as hawkish. And the North, despite its testing regimen, has not verbally assaulted Yoon, at least not yet. 

In its latest Plenary Session, North Korea talked tough, stating that it was in a “power-against-power” and “head-on-confrontation” with its enemies, Kwon said.

Pyongyang also hinted during last week’s Korean Workers’ Party’s Central Military Commission meeting that it could be redeploying military units in the DMZ area, while possibly pushing more authority down to on-ground commanders.  

But, Kwon said, it has not yet presented “its official stance toward the South” – i.e. the Yoon administration.

A screen grab taken from a KCNA broadcast on October 10, 2020, shows what appears to be new North Korean ICBMs during a military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, on Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang. These long-range monsters are not the only missiles in Kim’s armory. Photo: AFP / KCNA

Ready to talk, ready to help

Like Yoon, Kwon was a state prosecutor before entering politics.  In that role, he spent time on the unification beat at the Ministry of Justice in Germany – a benchmark for South Korea given that Germany reunified in 1990. 

Subsequently, during Seoul’s last conservative administration, Kwon served as South Korea’s ambassador to China from 2013-2015.

Seoul’s prior Moon Jae-in administration prioritized engagement with North Korea. That process was doomed after relations between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump chilled following a failed summit in 2019.

Kwon made clear that, despite the passing of the power baton, he would not reverse all the Moon administration’s policies.

“North Korea policy will be just like a relay,” he said. While there may be “drastic changes” in other policy areas, “when it comes to North Korea policy we have a very specific counterpart in mind – North Korea – so sudden change is not desirable.”

In that light, he said he would not be seeking to reverse a 2020 law that prevents anti-North Korean activist groups flying balloons loaded with anti-regime messaging over the border.

Conversely, the Yoon administration has stated that it wants to probe the conditions surrounding a gruesome and mysterious death in 2020.

That September, a South Korean official was shot and killed in the Yellow Sea, and his body burned, by North Korean coastguards. It was believed at the time that he had entered the water from a patrol boat in a bid to defect to the North but ran afoul of anti-Covid measures.

Seoul’s reaction to the killing was muted.

Kwon repeated a key administration message, that “our humanitarian support will continue irrespective of any political or military considerations.”

South Korea, as well as the US and other countries, have offered Pyongyang assistance to deal with its Covid-19 outbreak. Pyongyang has not responded to those offers, Kwon confirmed, but said it was possible that China has extended under-the-radar assistance.

With North Korean having gone into fortress mode, closing its borders since the outset of the pandemic, the status of the pandemic in the country is murky.

“We do not have any visibility at all within North Korean society as there is practically no presence of international organizations or foreign embassies,” he said. “But what has been broadcast by North Korean state media regarding Covid-19 is very different to how other countries experienced this pandemic, so there is room for some questions.” 

Pyongyang, which is believed to lack test kits, has been reporting the disease based on the number of fevers registered by its health authorities – i.e. symptoms rather than the disease itself. More recently, it has been reporting widespread intestinal disorders, which is at odds with other countries’ Covid experience.

North Korean medical students wearing face masks disinfect their hands and undergo a temperature check as they arrive for a lecture on preventive measures against Covid-19 at the Pyongyang University of Medicine in the capital. Photo: AFP / Kim Won Jin

According to information received from the China-North Korea border area, Yoon said in some areas of the country lockdowns have been lifted, but not in others.

Yet there is one uniquely North Korean indication that the worst may have passed.

Photos from state media show masked citizens taking part in an anti-US rally in Pyongyang on June 25, the anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. It is the first time in five years that that event has taken place.

“This could be interpreted as a possible change in their stance to be more aggressive toward South Korea and the international community,” Kwon said. “But it could be a way to control sentiments that have been stirred by the outbreak of Covid and lockdowns.”

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