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Tensions Rise, Divisions Broaden: An Update from the Korean Peninsula

What is happening?

The 57th Central Integrated Defense Council, presided over by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, was held on January 31. The meeting, which brings together South Korea’s military, government, and civil defense entities, took place amid growing tensions in the Korean Peninsula, and fears of Pyongyang’s interference in the upcoming legislative elections in the South.


What is the broader picture?

The Central Integrated Defense Council is an annual meeting of key officials across national defense agencies, which focuses on evaluating progress in the development of an integrated defense posture over the course of the previous year. At this year’s meeting, for the first time, the public, government, military, police, and firefighters discussed North Korea’s long-range artillery as well as cyber and electronic attacks.

The recent tensions between South Korea and North Korea stem from official North Korean media reports concerning leader Kim Jong Un’s speech at the Supreme People’s Assembly on January 15. At the tenth meeting of the assembly, Kim Jong Un condemned South Korea and the United States for provoking regional tensions. He also reiterated that it is no longer possible for the two Koreas to move towards reconciliation and peaceful reunification and proposed an amendment to North Korea’s constitution to list Seoul as Pyongyang’s “primary and immutable enemy.”

Calling for the deletion of specific words in the constitutional provisions such as “northern region” and “peaceful reunification,” Kim also demanded an end to descriptions of the people of the two Koreas as “compatriots,” or the “80 million people on the Korean Peninsula.”

The meeting also formally abolished government agencies responsible for promoting dialogue and cooperation between North and South, including the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland of North Korea, the National Economic Cooperation Bureau, and the Mount Kumgang International Tourism Bureau. The import of these measures was obvious: to reinforce the notion that relations between the two countries are over and that the North is no longer interested in pursuing reunification.

At a year-end meeting in 2023, Kim Jong Un had previously set the tone for a hostile relationship between two sides that “will never be reunified,” while signaling that his country was constantly on a war footing. Since the beginning of 2024, Pyongyang has continued to fire artillery shells and ballistic missiles into the waters off South Korea’s coast. As of January 28, it had launched three such missiles. A tense atmosphere has once again enveloped the Korean Peninsula, as the possibility of war looms.

Bang Kwang-hyuk, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Geneva, used South Korea’s national name – the “ROK” – at a meeting to discuss disarmament held at the United Nations’ Geneva office on January 30, according to the UN Disarmament Conference.

North Korean representatives had previously used “South Korea” or “SK,” at UN conferences, so the change at the UN conference fit with recent rhetoric.

The term “South Korea” appeared when Kim Yo Jong, vice chairman of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, used it in a statement in July last year, after which it became more common. However, with Kim Jong Un subsequently defining inter-Korean relations as hostile rather than fraternal at a plenary session of the ruling Workers’ Party, it was clear his South Korea policy had changed altogether. Since then, the “South Korea” formulation has become increasingly infrequent.

On February 2, Kim Jong Un visited the Nampo Shipyard to observe the construction status of combat ships and to order the reinforcement of the navy. “The most important issue today is strengthening the naval force in protecting the country’s maritime sovereignty and pushing for war preparations,” Kim said.

The Nampo Shipyard in Pyongannam-do is a major military facility where the North Korean Navy builds and repairs high-speed boats and submarines operating in the West Sea. The facility has recently been confirmed as a site where barges used to test submarine-launched ballistic missiles are constructed.

Kim reportedly visited the shipyard to monitor production and understand the standard of technical equipment in more detail.

During the Eighth Party Congress in January 2021, North Korea announced a five-year plan for the development of its national defense capabilities, including five major tasks. The ship-related tasks mentioned at the time included nuclear submarines (nuclear-powered submarines) and underwater nuclear strategic weapons.


Why does it matter?

Combined with its series of statements, Pyongyang’s air and naval inspections and exercises suggest it is signaling the abandonment of any goal of achieving consensus with Seoul on reunification. At the same time, North Korea is indicating its readiness for war in a more aggressive and formalized manner. These trends on the Korean Peninsula will also significantly affect Sino-US relations and, more broadly, create instability in East Asia.