Kim Jong Un’s War Threats and Domestic Woes

Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong Un has been a vocal critic of South Korea since January 2024. He presided over the test of a new solid-fuel hypersonic missile and declared South Korea as the North’s primary enemy. He vowed to remove unification language from the constitution and destroyed inter-Korean symbols, such as the Arch of Reunification monument.

Kim also mentioned war, stating that North Korea had no intention of avoiding it and revealed plans to occupy, subjugate, and reclaim South Korea in case of war. These remarks have heightened inter-Korean tensions, reflecting North Korea’s awareness of leadership deficiencies and Kim’s desire to deflect from domestic issues.

Another incident in January 2024 involved a train accident in North Korea, which occurred on December 26, 2023, due to a power shortage. This incident highlights the North’s desire to deflect from domestic problems and the country’s growing awareness of its leadership deficiencies.

North Korean passenger trains, which typically have nine to 11 carriages, have been involved in an accident involving the last seven carriages, which were loaded with everyday Koreans. The accident is believed to have resulted in hundreds of deaths. The details of the accident remain unclear due to tight control in North Korea, and some South Korean reports suggest it may have been a bus accident. However, President Kim Jong-un emphasized the need to improve train safety during his January 16 address.

The accident comes at a time of increased discontent among North Koreans, who believe their leadership is not doing enough to improve conditions, address resource scarcity, or enhance the safety of average citizens. Human rights groups have reported the dire living conditions of average North Koreans and the gap between their lives and those of high-level government officials.

The current crisis facing North Koreans may not be as severe as the 1990s famine, but power shortages and food insecurity continue to blight them. The train accident may serve as a catalyst for discontent, as societal unrest builds on widespread popular anger at injustice and feelings of losing their proper place in society.

North Korea is facing a critical period of change, with a younger generation more used to market economics and greater access to external information. This clashes with the regime’s official ideology of economic self-reliance and isolationist approach. Kim has readopted the “byungjin” policy, a two-pillared approach based on building up both the military and economy, to reduce domestic discontent.

Kim Jong-un’s policy of increasing government surveillance and raiding homes amid discontent and protests is being deflected by signaling war and creating uncertainty for North Koreans’ future. This is similar to new-style dictators manipulating beliefs about the world to make outside threats seem greater than domestic problems.

The war rhetoric has resulted in combined naval exercises involving American aircraft carriers, and North Korea sent its foreign minister to Russia to cultivate bilateral relations involving North Korean weaponry used in the war against Ukraine.

Kim Jong-un’s deflection tactics have a significant impact on North Korea’s political landscape. The Biden administration has adopted a more hawkish stance towards North Korea, moving closer to allies Japan and South Korea to ensure a coordinated approach. Donald Trump, who met Kim during a 2018 Singapore summit and has since touted the idea of allowing North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons while offering financial incentives to stop making new bombs, is likely to challenge Biden in the upcoming presidential vote.

Kim’s belligerent rhetoric could be seized by Trump as evidence that Biden’s approach is not working. South Korea’s legislative elections are also impacted by Kim’s deflection tactics. The declaration of South Korea as the “enemy” and the launch of missiles are designed to influence the public’s perception about security on the peninsula.

Kim’s remarks are designed to exploit political divisions in South Korea, influencing voters to support political parties that stress engagement and are less likely to support President Yoon Suk Yeol’s hardline approach to North Korean matters. A South Korean legislative body that tolerates Kim’s whims is more favorable than one critical of its regime, as is a friendlier man in the White House.

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