Kim Jong-un rejects unification out of fear of South Korea

Kim Jong-un at the 7th Enlarged Meeting of 8th Central Military Commission of WPK on Aug 9, 2023. Image | Rodong Sinmun

Like a wizard, Kim Jong-un waved his magic wand on March 23 and an entire organization vanished. The Democratic Front for the Reunification of Korea, a party body commonly known as the Fatherland Front, that had been around for almost 80 years, was no more.

The front’s dissolution was the latest in a series of vanishing tricks in the wake of Kim’s announcement on December 30 that there was no more point in pursuing reunification with South Korea.

Government departments have gone. References to unification went from subway station names, websites, and publications. The map of the peninsula in weather forecasts now only shows North Korea. Even the national anthem has been changed. “The beautiful country of 3,000 ri,” a reference to the length of the peninsula, has become “The beautiful country of this world.”

Gone are organizations like the Committee for Implementing the June 15 Joint Declaration, the North Headquarters of the Pan-national Alliance for Korean Reunification, and the Consultative Council for National Reconciliation. 

Now the Fatherland Front has followed them into the trash can.

The front was formed in 1946, before the formal creation of the two separate states, as a coalition of 72 political parties and social organizations from both sides. Notably, it brought together the South Korean National Democratic Front, an umbrella body of 40 leftist groups led by the Communist Party of Korea, and the North Korean National Democratic Front, which had 13 groups and was led by the Workers’ Party of Korea.

Despite this history, the front has been something of an empty vessel since the establishment in 1961 of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland (CPRF), as the governmental organization handling the real business of inter-Korean relations and unification-related matters. The front’s main role has been peace offensives, such as dialogue between political parties and social organizations in the two Koreas. 

The decision on March 23 to dissolve it came in a meeting in which representatives of its 24 member parties and social organizations accused South Korea of pursuing ”regime collapse” and “unification by absorption.” This latter term refers to the German and Vietnamese forms of national unification by which one side completely takes over the other. The members declared that, as Seoul was not a good faith partner, there was no longer any need for the front to exist. They unanimously agreed to dismantle it.

Kim is now moving to revise the constitution. If carried out, this will formally eradicate the founding mission of the Kim dynasty to achieve reunification.

What are we to make of this? 

International experts are offering several interpretations. Some view it as Kim’s acceptance that reunification on the North’s terms is no longer possible. Others see it as a strategic repositioning rather than a true abandonment of reunification. Others argue that it’s a tactical move to push the obstacle of South Korea aside and extract concessions from the United States. Given that the change is an implicit rejection of his father and grandfather, some say he is seeking to distinguish his own rule from theirs.

It is hard to thoroughly argue against these theories. Each has some merit. As most analysts agree, it will take time before the smoke clears and Kim’s intentions become apparent.

That said, what stands out for me is that the factor driving the dissolution of the Fatherland Front and the other changes this year is the growing influence of South Korea, not just in the world, but within North Korea itself. 

In many ways, North Korea hardly changes from one decade to the next. But the recent influx of information into the country has emerged as the Achilles’ heel of Kim’s regime. 

Lee Min-bok, who heads an activist group in the South that sends information into the North using balloons, believes that, while the South Koreans do not have a strategic plan to achieve “reunification by absorption,” they are in fact absorbing North Korea by stealth. 

“This process is invisible,” he said. “The way the South’s culture has taken root even in the stony ground of North Korea is evidence of this.”

Lee noted that the official name for the South, the Republic of Korea, was never uttered when he lived in North Korea, but now even Kim is using it as he strives to convince his people that it is a foreign country. He is doing this because South Korea has replaced the United States in his assessment as the North’s greatest enemy. 

“Previously everything was devoted to the cause of reunification, but now this has been abandoned in the face of an apparently impending absorption by the South. The fact that they have designated the South as their number one enemy shows how keenly they feel this threat,” he said.

It is my conviction that the rationale for the recent change of direction is fear of South Korea’s invisible takeover of North Korean hearts and minds.

The claims about South Korea’s bad faith and aggressive intent which are used to justify the new posture do not stand up to fact-checking. Most inter-Korean efforts have been initiated by South Korea. Three of its presidents have visited Pyongyang, where they adopted declarations and agreements regarding peace and reunification. The idea that this all masks an aggressive intent is a fantasy at best and hypocrisy at worst, a case of North Korea seeing itself in the South Korean mirror.

That is not to say North Korea does not fear South Korea. It does. North Korea’s regime is always afraid. Its actions towards the outside, as well as towards its own, are all driven by fear. And this is what lies behind its new posture. We see it manifest in the dismantling of the Fatherland Front and all the other changes.

Kim Heung-kwang

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