North Korea: Preparing for War, Mere Blustering, or Something in Between?

For the 70 years of shaky peace that have defined the Korean Peninsula since the conclusion of the July 1953 Armistice Agreement, the question of whether North Korea preparing for war has been a central concern of the United States, South Korea, and the international community. For the first several decades of armistice, repeated lethal provocations—including multiple armed incursions into the demilitarized zone, attempts to assassinate the South Korean president, the bombing of a South Korean civilian airliner, the seizing of the USS Pueblo, and a steady stream of threatening propaganda—strained, but did not break, the durability of the armistice and the fragile peace it accomplishes.

Even nuclear weapons have not yet fully tested this peace. The crisis created by Pyongyang’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has led to rumors of war at numerous key points of North Korea’s “nuclear crisis” going back to the early 1990s. Most recently, the intense pace of missile launches in 2017 and over the past few years has led to concerns about a U.S.-North Korea conflict, or even an inter-Korean conflict. Pyongyang’s refusal to engage either Washington or Seoul in dialogue, its growing nuclear and missile capabilities, and its threats that these capabilities could serve as a first-use preemptive strike capability have once again raised the question, “Is North Korea preparing for war?” The answer, in the author’s experience of having to contend with this question multiple times over the past 40-plus years, is no, with some caveats.

Of Course War Preparations Are Underway

At a certain level, the answer to that question is, of course, yes. Every country’s military prepares for war. Such preparation is crucial to that military’s success in battle as well as to its deterrence of potential adversaries in peacetime. For a militant garrison state such as North Korea, whose national identity and leadership legitimacy are inextricably tied to a perpetual struggle with outside enemies, real or concocted, there is a need for the million-man Korean People’s Army (KPA) to be portrayed by North Korea’s propaganda apparatus as training and enhancing its force capability so as to be ready for war.

On the other hand, the Korean Peninsula since 1953 has survived repeated concerns that war might be imminent, yet with no resultant war. A large reason for that has been the U.S. security commitment to South Korea, the presence of United States Forces South Korea (USFK) to support that commitment, and the role of the United Nations Command (UNC) in maintaining the armistice. Deterrence has worked. There is every reason to believe that is the case today. Yes, North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities are concerning. Yes, Pyongyang’s proclivity toward provocative language and actions, to include lethal strikes to advance both tactical and strategic political goals, warrants continued attention. And yes, the United States and South Korea should be concerned about the possibility that Kim Jong-un might conclude that using or threatening to use nuclear weapons could be a viable option down the road. But, for now, there is no reason to question what U.S. secretary of defense Lloyd Austin proclaimed in describing the U.S.-South Korea alliance as “one of the most robust, capable and interoperable alliances on earth” that has “deterred greater conflict on the Korean Peninsula for seven decades,” adding that “if necessary, we remain ready to fight tonight.”

Avoiding Nuclear Complacency? Already There

All of this is not designed to dismiss Pyongyang’s growing nuclear threat and the possibility of increasingly aggressive and coercive North Korean behavior. In fact, experts on the country’s nuclear program, particularly those within the U.S. intelligence community, have been thinking about the possibility of a nuclear war launched by North Korea for many years. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines in June 2023 authorized the declassification of a National Intelligence Estimate—the most authoritative and comprehensive analysis published by the intelligence community—that addresses the likelihood of North Korea’s coercive or offensive use of nuclear weapons to achieve a variety of strategic objectives, including dominating South Korea and seizing the lead in determining the future of the Korean Peninsula. In this regard, recent analysis that suggests North Korea may be preparing for nuclear war is not new in a strategic warning context—this is something about which the United States has been concerned for many years, and will need to be concerned going forward.

That said, the types of indicators one would expect to see on the eve of a North Korea attack simply have not been observed. The 2024 rhetoric—particularly Kim’s proclamation that reunification with South Korea is no longer a national goal of North Korea—has been troubling, but not unprecedentedly so. Most importantly, there is nothing in recent rhetoric of high predictive value: the atmosphere is clearly conducive to provocative behavior, but it is difficult to know the what and when of Pyongyang’s intent. The element of surprise traditionally has been a crucial element of North Korea’s provocations, making it the best tool Pyongyang has to establish and maintain escalation control by complicating U.S. and South Korean in-kind, proportionate responses. What North Korea threatens—such as blowing up conservative South Korean media companies, shelling the launch site of South Korean balloon launches, or destroying a Christmas tree near the border—it does not actually follow up on. When it does decide to engage in lethal provocations, such as the 2010 sinking of the South Korean navy vessel Cheonan or the shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong-do, it does not telegraph such actions in advance.

For Now, It’s the Economy

Ascertaining Kim’s intent is difficult, but North Korea is not the “black hole” some describe it to be. For the past several years, Kim has used major Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) meetings, particularly in the final days of the year, to present reports or speeches that summarize advances across political, ideological, economic, national defense, diplomacy, and inter-Korean relations sectors over the past year, describe the environment and challenges that North Korea faces, and lay out goals and priorities for the coming year. Such reports should be taken with a grain of salt: there is no way of verifying claims of accomplishments, prioritization of goals, or precise details of the various objectives. That said, such documents serve as guidelines or “commander’s intent” for North Koreans across all sectors of society, and are often reinforced with various rallies, study sessions, project launches, resource and personnel movements, and other efforts.

Two recent significant political meetings—the 9th Expanded Plenum of the WPK Central Committee 8th Party Congress in late December 2023 and the 19th Enlarged Meeting of the Political Bureau of the 8th Central Committee of the WPK in January 2024—provided opportunities for Kim to articulate his policies for the near term, with a focus on economic development. While Kim admitted that the road ahead would be difficult, he made an impassioned call for maximum state and party efforts to be directed toward improving economic conditions throughout the country. Reports of discharged soldiers being sent to the countryside, and the KPA doing its part to contribute to national development, reflect the fact that North Korea is not a country mobilizing for imminent war. 

That said, Kim troublingly continues to prioritize advancement of his WMD program. More launches and testing will come in 2024, as seen in North Korea’s claimed test of a “new solid-fuel hypersonic missile with intermediate range” on January 15 and test of a “new-type strategic cruise missile” on January 24. The KPA’s winter training cycle will overlap with the upcoming U.S.-South Korea annual military exercises, providing an environment conducive to North Korea to ratchet up pressure and tension to support its standing disinformation messaging efforts to portray the United States and South Korea as culprits. It is impossible to rule out heightened rhetoric, bombastic proclamations and threats, shows of force, challenges to the Northern Limit Line that has served to separate maritime activities of the two sides in the West Sea, and perhaps even a lethal provocation of limited scale designed to foment criticism of North Korea policies in both Seoul and Washington. As regrettable as such coercive behavior is, it is likely to be limited in scope, with sufficient de-escalation built in: all-out war seems to be the last thing Kim seeks at this time.

The Russia Variable

There is justifiable concern that recent developments in Russian-North Korean relations could enhance North Korea’s WMD and conventional forces, expand provocation options for Kim, and embolden him to believe he has, if not a green light from Russia, at least a flashing yellow light to act more aggressively toward South Korea. The White House has revealed that Pyongyang “is seeking military assistance from Russia, including fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, armored vehicles, ballistic missile production equipment or materials, and other advanced technologies.” Glenn Snyder’s stability-instability paradox asserts that when two countries each have nuclear weapons, the probability of a direct war between them greatly decreases, but the probability of minor or indirect conflicts between them increases. One must conclude that any improvement to North Korea’s conventional capabilities achieved through its growing military cooperation with Moscow raises the possibility of conflict that would include either the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. There is no separating North Korea’s nuclear threat from its conventional threat.

Inter-Korean Trainwreck Ahead?

Concerns are also growing about the state of inter-Korean relations given Kim’s recent pronouncement that South Korea is the “most hostile state” to North Korea, that reconciliation and reunification between the two Koreas are no longer goals, and that in case of war North Korea would seek to, in Kim’s own words, “completely occupy, subjugate, and reclaim the ROK and annex it as a part of the territory of our Republic.” A debate has ensued as to the practical implications of this action: Does this imply that Kim is laying the groundwork for justifying an attack on South Korea based upon South Koreans no longer portrayed as being “fellow countrymen?” Or does this two-state solution justify Kim simply ignoring South Korea until a friendlier government replaces the Yoon administration in 2027? Perhaps just as Kim had to moderate any domestic enthusiasm for a breakthrough in U.S.-North Korea relations following his failed Hanoi gambit, growing affinity for South Korean culture, particularly among younger North Koreans, requires Kim to direct ideological and cultural education efforts to avoid giving the impression that South and North Koreans are “fellow countrymen,” reminding his citizens that South Korea is their primary foe and invariable principle enemy. Public executions and prison camp sentences for young North Koreans with an affinity for South Korean music, culture, clothing, and hair styles already reflect that the North Korean regime perceives South Korea ontologically as an existential threat: South Korea is a living model to North Koreans of what their country might be without the Kim family’s regime. Regardless of the motivation, the move to lay aside denuclearization is not a predictively helpful event to assess the what, when, and where of future North Korean provocations.

The China Variable

China remains an additional important variable. Long gone are the days of hoping that Beijing would finally cooperate with the level of pressure necessary to bring North Korea to the negotiating table: it will not. China dismissed calls for pressure on Pyongyang as risking destabilization of the region with no guarantee of success. The United States countered by warning that Chinese inaction toward North Korea would lead to an exponentially greater destabilization risk as North Korea’s nuclear program grows. That day is now here, particularly if Kim is emboldened by developments in North Korean-Russian military cooperation. Expansion of North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities has so far not been seen by Beijing as a threat to China’s interests. However, a war on the Korean Peninsula that would reach the nuclear threshold quite quickly would pose a direct threat to China’s interests, even if it cannot envision such an outcome at this point in time. The United States should use all diplomatic means possible to push Beijing to use its influence, with both Moscow and Pyongyang, to prevent such a scenario from unfolding in the years ahead.

The late Henry Kissinger, in describing why the international community was unable to take action to counter Hitler during the interwar period, wisely noted, “Statesmen always face the dilemma that, when their scope for action is greatest, they have a minimum of knowledge. By the time they have garnered sufficient knowledge, the scope for decisive action is likely to have vanished.” He added, “Had the democracies forced a showdown with Hitler early in his rule, historians would still be arguing about whether Hitler had been a misunderstood nationalist or a maniac bent on world domination.” 

Sydney Seiler is a senior adviser (non-resident) with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.