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A view from the demilitarized zone dividing the Koreas

Associated Press/Ahn Young-joon
In this April 26, 2019, file photo, a North Korean flag flutters in the North’s Kijong-dong village as a South Korean army soldier stands at the border village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea.

Activists looking for reconciliation with North Korea persist in believing that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might settle for confederation between the North and South.

Foes of South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, fantasize about confederation after the North Koreans invade the South and then open talks with South Koreans. The conservative Yoon intends to reverse the appeasement campaign of his liberal predecessor, Moon Jae-in, and agree to joint military exercises between South Korean and U.S. forces in the face of rising North Korean threats, but leftists want a withdrawal of the Americans and abrogation of the historic U.S.-South Korean alliance as bait to lure Kim into a deal. 

The dream of confederation dates to the presidency of the late President Kim Dae-jung, who proposed “confederation” while promoting his failed “Sunshine policy” of reconciliation, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize after meeting Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang in June 2000.

A visit to the northeastern corner of South Korea — inside the southern side of the four-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone that stretches across the peninsula — should dispel the fantasy of North Korean forces uniting under one banner as central to confederation. South Korea’s 22nd Infantry Division remains on guard against a North Korean attack, as it was in my previous visits when elderly South Koreans waited for buses to carry them across the line into North Korea for reunions lasting three or four days with long lost relatives at a resort at the foot of the peaks and crags of Mount Kumgang, or Diamond Mountain. South Koreans have not gone on these reunion visits for nearly two years, and ordinary tours from the South were canceled nearly 14 years ago after a North Korean guard shot and killed a South Korean woman who had strayed outside the tourist zone to gaze at the sunrise.

At the northernmost observation post of the 22nd Division, a young South Korean officer points across the military demarcation line running down the middle of the DMZ to mark the North-South border. Gashes in the forested slopes indicate guard posts where North Korean troops face the South Koreans, as they have ever since the Korean War ended in a highly armed truce in July 1953. While the world worries about North Korean missile and nuclear tests, the South Korean officer believes the North Koreans are more likely to stage incidents along and across the DMZ than to fire a missile into the South — much less to explode a nuclear device for any purpose other than the North’s long-awaited seventh underground test.

After a briefing, retired South Korean Lt. Gen. Chun In-bum warns that the North Korean threat has only increased during the years since we first met when he was a battalion commander atop Hill 919 a few ridgelines to the west. The soldiers on the crest of 919 — named for its altitude in meters above the shimmering sea to the east — were primed for attack then as now. The porous nature of the rough frontier was glaringly obvious when a young North Korean defected to the South by scaling the barbed-wire fencing. Then, in January, the same man re-defected the way he came after failing to find more than janitorial work in the South.

As Kim escalates his rhetoric while COVID-19 spreads among his impoverished people, Chun dismisses notions of accommodation with the North as “wishful thinking.” More likely, he believes, the North Koreans — if they came south in a second Korean war — would liquidate millions of South Koreans deemed “untrustworthy.”

Chun doubts whether the North has given up the goal of a unified Korean Peninsula under communist rule. The sense is that Kim Jong Un, far from looking for confederation, has abandoned none of his programs for intimidating and threatening the South — despite all the hardships North Korea has endured, culminating in the pandemic that’s engulfing his kingdom. 

Right now, Kim’s propaganda machine is boasting that authorities are conquering COVID after having denied for more than two years that a single citizen was suffering from the disease. In North Korea, the image of the battle against COVID turning into a victory for the regime is the party line. North Korea is releasing extremely low figures for the number who have died from the virus. Far more likely, tens of thousands have succumbed.

Under the circumstances, one would think that Kim would suspend his nuclear and missile program while battling the disease. But, overlooking the border between North and South Korea, Chun and others with whom I spoke seriously doubt if the disease is deterring Kim at all from his dream of conquest of the entire Korean peninsula.

With at least 40 percent of the North’s 26 million people estimated to be suffering from hunger, Kim Jong Un is not worried about losing many thousands whom his regime never has been able to feed. He has test-fired missiles since acknowledging the existence of the pandemic within the North’s borders, and he reportedly is preparing for the next nuclear test — the first since he ordered the North’s sixth nuclear test in September 2017.

Some observers believe that Kim may have abandoned hope of taking over the South, much less considering confederation of North and South into one unified country with different systems. No way, says Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. Lankov, who was also looking over the border from the 22nd Division’s observation post, believes that Kim is resurrecting the dream. Lankov, a Russian scholar who studied at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang in the mid-1980s, sees aggression against the South as a distraction from the North’s current troubles.

Chun believes Kim would be capable of liquidating up to half of the South’s population as a means for establishing solid control. It’s difficult to believe Kim Jong Un could wreak so much death and destruction, but on the line between North and South, South Korean troops cannot afford to let down their guard.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

Tags DMZ Kim Jong Il Kim Jong Un North Korea nuclear weapons South Korea Yoon Suk-yeol

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