20.12.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

North Korea is once again the enemy in the eyes of South Korea

In the 2022 White Paper on Defense, in accordance with the policy of the current administration, the political regime and the army of North Korea are designated as hostile to South Korea. This was reported on December 6, 2022 by South Korean media familiar with the draft document, which will be officially released in January 2023.

Furthermore, on December 7, at a morale training seminar held at the National Assembly, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup stated that “it must be clearly understood that the North Korean regime and its armed forces are the enemy of South Korea.”  It is indicated that North Korea continues missile provocations and deliberately violates the inter-Korean agreement on reducing military tensions dated September 19, 2018 by shelling maritime buffer zones.  At the same time, the Ministry of Unification immediately stated that “the use of this expression by our military does not mean a rejection of inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation.”

According to conservative South Korean media, the move followed “Pyongyang’s ruthless weapons testing, including last month’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile and the firing of artillery shells at maritime ‘buffer zones’ established under a 2018 inter-Korean agreement to reduce tensions.” And rightly so, because “during the last five years of Moon Jae-in’s presidency, the liberal administration steadfastly adhered to peace and dialogue with North Korea, even as it has been busy upgrading its nuclear weapons and missiles. We welcome Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s change of course.” Some journalists used this occasion to once again state that the two Koreas are on the verge of war and the escalation has reached its peak, but most likely they simply haven’t done their homework.  In the history of South Korea, North Korea was more often deemed an enemy than not, and the author is not talking about the times of military dictatorship, when terms like “red evil spirits” were in general use.

The term “main enemy” in relation to North Korea was first used in the 1995 White Paper (officially, after Pyongyang threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,” in fact, on the wave of Kim Young-sam’s desire to contain North Korea against the backdrop of a “March of Suffering”) and was used up until 2000. Then there were shifts in inter-Korean relations towards reconciliation, and in 2004 this term was replaced by “direct military threat,” and under President Lee Myung-bak, the term was “direct and serious threat.” In 2010, when the Cheonan patrol ship was sunk and Yeonpyeong Island was shelled, the North Korean regime and army were called “enemies.” This position was adhered to in Seoul until the times of Moon Jae-in, when the following expression began to be used: “enemies for us are forces that threaten the sovereignty, territorial integrity, people and property of the Republic of Korea, as well as encroachment on these values”.

Without direct indications of what kind of ‘forces’ these were, after which the Conservatives criticized the wording for ambiguity. And back in early January 2022, when North Korea launched a ballistic missile for the first time, Yoon Suk-yeol deemed North Korea “the main enemy.” And on May 3, the Commission on the Acceptance of Presidential Powers announced that it was considering the possibility of including a corresponding item in the White Paper on Defense as part of the 110 main tasks of state policy. In accordance with the task, the Ministry of Defense distributed training materials for the military, which describe the armed forces of North Korea as enemies.

The thesis that the tension on the peninsula has reached its highest point is also incorrect.  Despite a staggering number of missile launches per year, this is far from the peak of tensions. The level of invective rhetoric present in 2017 has not been reached now. Moreover, there have been no real attacks “on each other,” as was the case in 2010 and 2002.

And if one were to analyze the argument that North Korea is shelling the buffer zone and thereby violating the inter-Korean agreement in the military sphere, then if you read the text of the agreement carefully, it becomes clear that shots can be fired at these zones, but troops cannot be deployed there.

The latest designation of North Korea as an “enemy” fits perfectly into the current course of Yoon Suk-yeol’s policy because, under the Conservatives, relations have always been worse than under the Democrats, but one important point must be noted. Apparently, Yoon Suk-yeol, as a pragmatist, understands that inter-Korean relations exist in a certain corridor. Its hypothetical lower limit is a military conflict, but neither the pragmatists in Pyongyang nor the pragmatists in Seoul will proceed to a full-scale war. The Moon administration, accused by Conservatives of “crypto-communism,” did very little of what was planned in the text of the inter-Korean agreements, even taking into account the fact that part of what was done can be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic, which complicated any inter-state contacts. However, none of the parties is willing to make any, from its point of view, unreasonable concessions.

Of course, if inter-Korean relations oscillate close to the lower border, this would be unpleasant and would increase the risk of a “Rabbit hunt-caused war,” but from the point of view of the Conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol, this is nothing to worry about. The missile crisis is a way for South Korea to strengthen its own deterrence and develop cooperation with the United States. And the fact that the North Koreans sometimes speak ill of the South Korean president, doesn’t seem to bother him: apparently because while he was a prosecutor, investigated persons told him much worse things. North Korea’s anger can be completely disregarded if it doesn’t cross red lines and limits itself to a war of words.

Moreover, by strengthening the alliance with the United States in the North Korean direction, Yoon Suk-yeol is trying to break free from Chinese and Russian influence, implying that Seoul does not want to irritate Beijing or Moscow, and neither does it want to provoke the leadership of these countries into drastic sanctions steps, thereby preventing what China did in 2016-2017 in response to the emergence of American missile defense systems in South Korea.

In conclusion, yes, this is another step that has raised the degree of tension, but this is not something out of the ordinary, but a typical element of the inter-Korean policy of the Conservatives.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.