July 20, 2024

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North Korea is to drop from its constitution its commitment to unification with South Korea, in a historic break with a decades-long policy amid mounting military tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Kim told North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly on Monday that South Korea was his country’s “principal enemy” and its citizens should no longer be regarded as “fellow countrymen” as he ordered officials to close state agencies dedicated to unification and inter-Korean tourism.

“The expressions ‘northern half’ and ‘independent, peaceful unification, and great national unity’ in our constitution should now be deleted,” Kim said, according to state media.

“The reality is that the North-South relationship is no longer a relationship of kinship or homogeneity, but a relationship of two hostile countries, a complete relationship of two belligerents in the midst of war,” he added.

He also called for the dismantling of an “eyesore” monument in Pyongyang that promotes inter-Korean unity.

After decades of occupation by Japan, the division of the Korean peninsula at the end of the second world war was cemented by the establishment of a pro-Soviet regime in the north and a pro-US regime in the south.

The Korean states, which remain in a state of war after a 1953 armistice that halted hostilities, have both maintained an official commitment to reunification. But last month, Kim announced that his regime’s decades-old unification policy of “one nation, one state with two systems” was no longer realistic.

The Arch of Reunification monument in Pyongyang
Kim has called for the removal of the ‘eyesore’ Arch of Reunification monument in Pyongyang, which symbolises inter-Korean unity © Jackie Ellis/Alamy

Jeongmin Kim, an analyst at Seoul-based information service NK Pro, said the North Korean leader was trying to resolve a “tricky ideological contradiction” between his nuclear-armed regime’s threats against South Korea and its historic stance that the countries remained compatriots eventually to be reunited.

“In North Korea, ideological consistency is not just an abstract concept,” she said. “It is seen as the foundation of the regime’s legitimacy.”

Accusing successive governments in Seoul of pursuing “unification by absorption” and “unification under liberal democracy”, Kim said his country should prepare “for a great event to suppress the whole territory of South Korea” in the event of war.

Some analysts have warned that Kim could be laying the foundations for a future nuclear attack against South Korea.

In his remarks this week, Kim referred to North Korea’s revised nuclear doctrine, which was loosened last year to allow pre-emptive nuclear strikes under a wide range of scenarios, including when his country or government is attacked by a non-nuclear state.

“We don’t want war, but we have no intention of avoiding it,” he told the Supreme People’s Assembly.

Jeongmin Kim noted that Kim’s speech contained several caveats, including insisting that his country would not initiate a war on the Korean peninsula. But she added that his emphasis on North Korea’s territorial integrity left “more space for border clashes”.

Both Koreas conducted live-fire exercises close to their disputed maritime border earlier this month, following the collapse last year of a package of confidence-building measures agreed in 2018 to reduce military tensions.

“As long as the southern border of our country is clearly drawn, no borderline — including the illicit and lawless ‘Northern Limit Line’, can be compromised,” Kim said. “If [South Korea] invades our ground territory, territorial air space or territorial waters by even 0.001mm, it will be considered a provocation of war.”

On Tuesday, South Korea’s conservative president Yoon Suk Yeol condemned Kim’s “anti-national and ahistorical” remarks, promising to punish North Korea “multiple times as hard” in the event of a military provocation.

Jeongmin Kim said the abandonment of the goal of unification would have ramifications for politics in South Korea, where voters will go to the polls in parliamentary elections in April.

“The South Korean left has long promoted a policy of engagement and co-operation with North Korea with a view to achieving some form of reunification in the future,” she said.

“Not only is that approach going to be much harder to sustain, but South Korea’s own constitutional commitment to eventual reunification could start to come into question as well.”

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