On January 10, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un abandoned decades of seeking peaceful Korean unification. He called South Korea the country's “principal enemy” and said he has “no intention of avoiding war.” He further said he would have no hesitation in “annihilating South Korea,” which sounds like Kim is preparing for a major nuclear weapon attack on the South.
Subsequently, two renowned experts on North Korea wrote an article arguing that “Kim Jong-un has made a strategic decision to go to war.” In the subsequent debate, others maintained this is not the case.
So, has Kim really decided to go to war?
To answer this question properly, we must first distinguish between kinds of war. In fact, Kim already has gone to war: The Kim Family has been preparing for and fighting a cold war against South Korea and the United States for seventy years. This can be seen in the North's propaganda operations against the South, its identifying the United States and South Korea as hostile enemies that seek to invade the North, its many provocations, including its missile and nuclear weapon tests, and its inflammatory threats.
Of course, Kim uses these actions to help his failing regime survive. He diverts the attention of his people from his regime's many failings and seeks the appearance of an empowered and successful leader. These actions also allow him to apply pressure on the South Korea–U.S. alliance with the hope of undermining it.…
The remainder of this commentary is available at nationalinterest.org.
Bruce W. Bennett is a senior international/defense researcher at nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND. He works primarily on research topics such as strategy, force planning, and counterproliferation within the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center.
This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on February 9, 2024. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.