Analysts: North Korea Seeks to Dominate South Korea Through Nuclear Coercion

This picture taken on Jan. 28, 2024, and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on Jan. 29 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspecting a test-fire of the submarine-launched strategic cruise missile.

Several prominent analysts are voicing doubts about a widely cited article concluding that North Korea has decided to wage war against South Korea, suggesting that Pyongyang’s provocative military buildup is more likely intended to win control over the South through intimidation.

North Korea test-fired another round of cruise missiles off its west coast on Tuesday, according to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff. This was the third cruise missile launch since Jan. 14, when the regime tested a hypersonic intermediate-range ballistic missile.

Two days after the Jan. 14 launch, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared an end to his country's policy of seeking reunification with South Korea and ordered his nation to be ready to occupy South Korea if war breaks out.

SEE ALSO: North Korea Ends Policy of Reunification with South Korea

Two leading North Korea watchers wrote earlier this month that they believe Kim has already made a strategic decision to go to war against the South.

Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker, both with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, said they believe Kim made the decision after determining that attempts to normalize relations with the U.S. have failed. They said Kim suffered "a traumatic loss of face" when then-President Donald Trump walked out of a Hanoi summit in 2019.

Carlin, a former chief of the Northeast Asia Division at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, published their Jan. 11 article on 38North, a website focused on North Korea.

But other analysts say that while North Korea has been escalating tensions, it is not positioning itself for an imminent war with the South.

"I don't see a deliberate decision to go to war on any kind of timeline in the next month or next year," said David Maxwell, vice president of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy.

Maxwell said he believes North Korea's goal — for now — is to engage in strategic political warfare to bring Seoul under Pyongyang's rule by manipulating the South Korean government and members of the public to become "friendly to the North."

Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation, said an attempt to occupy South Korea by force cannot be discounted but that he believes North Korea's goal in developing and testing missiles and nuclear weapons is to intimidate Seoul.

Kim's "ultimate goal is to dominate and control" the South Korean government "by coercion as opposed to by conquest," Bennett said. He believes Kim wants to be able to demand money from the South while manipulating its policies that threaten his legitimacy.

Bennett suggested the targets would include blocking the flow of South Korea's soft influence such as K-pop and K-dramas, the globally popular music and videos that penetrate into North Korea. Kim’s regime has taken a hard line against both, imprisoning and executing people caught enjoying South Korean entertainment.

A similar analysis appeared in U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) estimates that were declassified in June. They suggested that Kim is most likely "to pursue a strategy of coercion, potentially including non-nuclear lethal attacks, aimed at advancing the North's goal of intimidating its neighbors, extracting concessions, and bolstering the regime's military credentials domestically."

The NIC said Kim is more likely to use force, including nuclear weapons, to coerce rather than conquer South Korea.

Bennett predicted that if North Korea were to attack the South, it would do so by "annihilating South Korea," possibly with nuclear weapons, rather than seeking to invade it. He said Kim is unlikely to send ground troops into South Korea where they could learn things that would undermine his legitimacy.

Maxwell said conditions that would lead North Korea to launch a war depend more on its domestic situation than external threats. Domestic political and economic instability that threatens his survival could prompt Kim to start a war using the pretext of external threats as an excuse.

Economic scarcity is already causing a political problem, as Kim acknowledged in a speech at a Workers' Party meeting on Jan. 23-24.

Kim said, "Failure to satisfactorily provide the people" with "basic living necessities including condiments, foodstuff, and consumption goods has arisen as a serious political issue."

The problem is not so acute as to pose a threat to his survival, but enough to make him want to divert attention from domestic issues, according to analysts.

Michael O'Hanlon, director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said he disagrees with Carlin and Hecker about the threat of impending war. "I am highly skeptical Kim really wants a high-level conflict because he values his own survival too much to attempt that," he said.