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Domestic woes put Kim Jong Un on the defensive – and the offensive – in the Korean Peninsula

Domestic woes put Kim Jong Un on the defensive – and the offensive – in the Korean Peninsula
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on a screen at the Seoul Railway Station on Aug. 24, 2023. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Kim Jong Un has had a busy and bellicose start to 2024.

On Jan. 14, the North Korean leader presided over the test of a “new solid-fuel hypersonic missile with intermediate range.” Two days later, during a speech at the Supreme People’s Assembly meeting in Pyongyang, Kim declared South Korea “the North’s primary foe and invariable principal enemy.” He also vowed to “purge unification language from the constitution” and called for the destruction of “inter-Korean symbols,” such as the Arch of Reunification monument, which has since been torn down in Pyongyang.

Then Kim went a step further: He spoke of war.

Noting that while North Korea does not want conflict, the communist country nevertheless had no “intention of avoiding it.” Kim went on to disclose the North’s plans to “occupy, subjugate and reclaim” South Korea in the event of war.

Kim’s remarks served to escalate inter-Korean tensions in a way familiar to observers of relations on the peninsula, like myself. Kim has a tendency to issue threats directed at the South at regular intervals.

The difference, this time, was the backstory behind Kim’s threats. Understanding that shines a light on North Koreans’ awareness of deficiencies in their leadership – and on Kim’s desire to deflect from domestic problems.

A train wreck

On Jan. 16, 2024, Radio Free Asia published a news story about a train accident in North Korea. According to the outlet, a Hamkyung Province-bound passenger train departing from Pyongyang overturned due to a power shortage while traveling up a steep slope on Dec. 26, 2023.

North Korean passenger trains typically consist of nine to 11 carriages, with the first two carriages reserved for high-level government officials. In this accident, the last seven carriages – loaded with everyday Koreans – derailed, according to reports. It is believed that hundreds died as a result.

The details of the accident remain murky because news in North Korea is tightly controlled. Some South Korean reports suggest that it may have been a bus and not a train accident. But Kim was careful to point out the need to “improve safety of train rides, during his Jan. 16 address, lending further weight to the train accident account.

From crash to war threats

The reported accident comes at a time of increased awareness and discontent among North Koreans that their leadership is not doing much to improve conditions, address the scarcity of resources or enhance the safety of average citizens. This is particularly true for those who are not part of the ruling elite.

In various surveys conducted by human rights groups of North Koreans who have fled to South Korea, escapees mentioned both 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 acute as the period of severe famine during the 1990s, during which an estimated
600,000 to 1 million people died.

But power shortages and food insecurity continue to blight North Koreans. The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights highlighted in a 2023 report conditions in which “some people are starving” and others are dying “”due to a combination of malnutrition, diseases and lack of access to health care.”

In such circumstances, the train accident may serve as a catalyst or focal point for discontent.

As social change scholar Jack Goldstone has noted, societal unrest builds on “some form of increasingly widespread popular anger at injustice” and when people feel “they are losing their proper place in society for reasons that are not inevitable and not their fault.”

A master of deflection

Worryingly for Kim, disquiet over both the train crash report and food and energy shortages comes as North Korea enters what experts have noted is “a critical period of change” in the state. Kim is faced with a younger generation more used to market economics – typified by the “jangmadang” black markets – and with greater access to external information. This clashes with the regime’s official ideology of economic self-reliance, or “juche,” and an isolationist approach that cuts off much of the outside world.

A missile is seen being fired into the air trailed by a plume of smoke.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspecting the launch of a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile.
Kim Jae-Hwan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Kim is aware of this new frontier in governance. To confront it, he has readopted the “byungjin” policy he first rolled out in 2013 — a two-pillared approach based on building up both the military and the economy in a bid to reduce chances for domestic discontent.

To successfully carry out this policy, Kim has had to become a master of deflection.

He is aware that the train incident comes amid discontent and protest over policies that have seen increased government surveillance and people’s homes raided over suspicion of anti-socialist tendencies.

As such, Kim appears to be deflecting domestic anger by signaling war and creating uncertainty for North Koreans’ future. This is similar to what scholars explain is a characteristic of new-style dictators who “manipulate beliefs” about the state of the world to make it look like outside threats are greater than domestic problems.

International playbook

The truth is, for Kim this deflection appears to be working. The war rhetoric has resulted in U.S., Japan and South Korea conducting combined naval exercises involving American aircraft carriers. Meanwhile, North Korea sent its foreign minister to Russia to cultivate bilateral relations that involve North Korean weaponry used in the war against Ukraine.

No one – North Korean news outlets, foreign journalists or world leaders – is mentioning the hundreds of people that likely died in the train accident, or those starving in the country.

Kim’s deflection also has an intended audience outside of North Korea itself: U.S. politicians and the South Korean public.

The Biden administration has adopted a more hawkish stance toward North Korea, moving closer to allies Japan and South Korea to ensure a coordinated approach to North Korea.

Meanwhile, Biden’s likely challenger in the upcoming presidential vote is Donald Trump – who as president 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.

Trump has stressed how much he has gotten to know the North Korean leader and the “great relationship” he has formed with him. There is a scenario where Kim’s belligerent rhetoric could be seized by Trump as evidence that Biden’s approach is not working.

Meanwhile, 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, in part, to influence the South Korean public’s perception about security on the peninsula.

Evans Revere, a former State Department official, explains that Kim’s remarks are “designed to exploit political divisions” in South Korea. In this kind of environment of war rhetoric, voters could be persuaded to support political parties that stress engagement and are less likely to support current President Yoon Suk Yeol’s party’s hardline approach to North Korean matters.

For Kim, a South Korean legislative body that is willing to tolerate his whims is more favorable than one critical of its regime, as is a friendlier man in the White House.

Kim Jong Un’s deflection certainly has more than one audience, but only one aim: to keep him in power.

The Conversation

Ñusta Carranza Ko does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.