Press Release

Why did NK change its policy toward South Korea?

  • 2024-07-05
  • The Korea Times (Kwak Yeon-soo)

A new geostrategic environment, anxiety over information penetration and the widening wealth gap between the two Koreas are the reasons behind North Korea's change of policy toward South Korea, a U.S. expert said, Tuesday.

Scott Snyder, president and chief executive officer of the Korea Economic Institute of America, made the point as Pyongyang described Seoul as its "primary foe" and publicly declared it would no longer seek unification and reconciliation with the South.

In January, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered removal of unification references from the country's constitution, dismantlement of monuments honoring the unification efforts of his predecessors and disbandment several government bodies tasked with promoting unification.

"Geostrategic environment is definitely a catalyst for North Korea's change of policy. If we think about the imbalance of the wealth gap (between the two Koreas), we have to imagine that North Korea wants to close the deficit. Strategic relationship with Russia is serving that purpose," Snyder said during a seminar titled "Unification of the Korean Peninsula: International Cooperation and Strategy for the Future" in Seoul. The event was co-hosted by the University of North Korean Studies and the East Asia Institute.

He added, "Anxieties within North Korea about information penetration is another factor. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is so focused on political loyalty. Since he doesn't have personal experience with inter-Korean competition, he's relatively unburdened by historical aspects that are the drive for unification."

During the forum, Junya Nishino, a political science professor at Japan's Keio University, said North Korea's change in policy is both defensive and offensive in nature.

"North Korea's intention is to block the inflow of South Korea's ideology and culture. It has been developing tactical nuclear weapons capable of hitting the South and (intercontinental ballistic missiles) capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Since there are difficulties in establishing mutual nuclear deterrence with the U.S., Pyongyang wants to protect its national security by attacking Seoul as an alternative or to prevent an attack from the U.S.," Nishino said.

"North Korea also has the intention to pursue independent diplomacy without relying on South Korea. Through summits with Seoul, Pyongyang may have realized 'there is nothing we can get from South Korea. It doesn't provide us with any help. It has outlived its usefulness.'"

Cheng Xiaohe, a political science professor at China's Renmin University, acknowledged that inter-Korea relations have complicated the U.S.-China rivalry. He talked about China's role in engaging North Korea, noting how the international community failed to take forward consensus over some issues on the Korean Peninsula and take collective actions.

"China is certainly an important stakeholder in Northeast Asia, but its role has been overshadowed by Russia," Cheng said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Pyongyang.

"China continues with (the) 'Three No(s)' policy — no chaos, no war and no nuclear weapons. The U.S. expects China to cooperate in engaging with North Korea, but at the same time, has been isolating us diplomatically, imposing sanctions on China in an aggressive way. That poses a paradoxical question to China of how to deal with it."

Snyder likened the escalating inter-Korean relations to the Cold War, saying that a new geopolitical event is necessary to bring about a dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea.

Nishino stressed that Japan and South Korea share common security threats posed by North Korea, adding that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has been ramping up efforts to engage with Pyongyang by having behind-the-scenes talks on a possible summit.