A screenshot from a music video of the song "Friendly Father," which praises the leadership of Kim Jong Un. (KCTV)

In January 2024, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a major shift in state ideology. Since the division of the Korean peninsula in 1945, North Korea had always held the reunification of North and South as one of its core goals. However, Kim abandoned this goal and declared that reunification was unnecessary. The word “reunification” cannot even be used in North Korea anymore. The Pyongyang subway system’s Unification Station became simply “Station” when authorities removed the word “unification” from its name.

The Korean People’s Army (KPA), for its part, was founded to reunify the peninsula. North Korea’s late founder, Kim Il Sung, who dreamed of reunifying the peninsula by force, worked to create the army even before the country was declared a state. In 1950, the KPA attempted to reunify Korea by force when it invaded the South, but failed. The Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953, but Kim Il Sung did not give up his dream of reunifying the peninsula by force. Kim even asked China for help in starting a second Korean War in the 1960s, while the KPA continued its propaganda about a “future great war of reunification” through the reigns of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un.

This year, however, marked the beginning of a new era in North Korea’s state ideology. Kim Jong Un’s anti-unification policy will bring about obvious changes in North Korea and the KPA. Of course, we can probably confirm this precisely through internal KPA materials and North Korean military personnel who defected after January 2024. However, in this column, I will present predictable changes based on common-sense assumptions.

North Korea’s attitude toward South Korea is very different from that of the 1940s and 1950s. The North Korean authorities considered South Korea to be the “occupied southern half” of the country. In the parts of South Korea occupied by the North Korean military during the Korean War, North Korea conscripted locals into the army as well as North Koreans. Even after the armistice in 1953, South Korean soldiers who defected to the North were given the same or equivalent rank in the KPA that they held in the South Korean military. For example, a South Korean lieutenant colonel who defected to the North could receive the rank of lieutenant colonel in the KPA by order of the North Korean Ministry of State Security.

North Korea also has its songbun caste system, which first appeared in the 1950s and was systematized in the 1960s. As is well known, this system divides North Koreans into several “classes.” The most important internal North Korean document on songbun is a 1993 manual on citizen registration published by the Ministry of Social Security. This document describes “righteous people who enter the North” – as defectors to the North are called – as follows:

“Righteous people who come to the north are those who, after living under the rule of the south Korean puppets, risk their lives to go to the northern half [North Korea] out of sincere sympathy for the socialism of our country”.

Defectors belong to the songbun system’s “complex class.” That is, they are on the same level as former inmates of political prisons or re-education camps. This shows that the North Korean authorities did not trust the South Koreans who entered the country. Later, however, the North Korean authorities considered South Koreans who defected to the North as citizens of the North. For example, when a South Korean named Kang Tong-rim defected to the North in 2009, state media recognized his new citizenship.

But things are likely to change from now on. North Korea, it seems, can no longer pursue a policy of recognizing North Korean defectors as citizens. Of course, if the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) are completely different countries, South Koreans would have no right to North Korean citizenship. As such, I would expect major changes to take place in North Korea’s defector policy.

What’s more, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has not only recognized South Korea as a separate country, but has even declared it an “enemy nation.” Previously, North Korean propaganda referred only to Japan and the United States as “enemy nations.”

North Korean literature places a strong emphasis on “cruelty to the enemy.” Most cultures stress that even enemy soldiers are human beings. In North Korea, however, even acts of cruelty such as beating “American imperialist bastards” and “Japanese imperialist bastards” or smashing their skulls represent “the Korean people’s revenge on the enemy.” Mercy to the enemy is the prerogative of the Supreme Leader or his successor. For example, in a novel about the North Korean seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968, the only North Korean who saw the American prisoners as human beings was Kim Jong Il. The author emphasized the “superhuman virtue” of the “Dear Leader, Comrade Kim Jong Il.”

North Korean propaganda erases the humanity of Americans and Japanese. I believe that documents depicting South Koreans as inhuman are likely to emerge sometime soon. While “rotten South Korea” was to be liberated in the past, “the enemy state, the ROK” must now be wiped out.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol won by the smallest margin in the country’s electoral history, 0.73%. The possibility of a progressive candidate winning the 2027 presidential election cannot be ruled out. If a leftist government comes to power in South Korea, will North Korea abandon its “anti-reunification” doctrine?

I don’t think so. Kim Jong Un’s two-nation narrative is not just an expression of dissatisfaction with the Yoon administration. The real aim of the doctrine is to prevent the reunification of the Korean Peninsula under the leadership of South Korea. If a progressive party figure wins the next South Korean election, could North Korea adopt a policy of “DPRK-ROK friendship” instead of “North-South friendship”? I would expect that North Korea would regard South Korea as a completely different nation. The country could also demand that Seoul and Pyongyang establish diplomatic relations or that South Korea amend Article 3 of its constitution, which defines the territory of the ROK as the Korean Peninsula and its attached islands. We can’t know whether a South Korean progressive government would accept these proposals, but I don’t think we can completely rule them out, either.

For North Koreans, this period still offers some hope. Leaving the North to come to the South is very risky, but the rewards are just as great. Those rewards are personal freedom, living like a human being, and the benefits of being a South Korean citizen. One of the goals of Kim Jong Un’s two-nation narrative is to eliminate that hope. If Kim Jong Un’s new state ideology succeeds, it will be a great victory for the Kim family.

Please send any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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