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North Korea's Kim Jong Un changes his tune about reunification

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As the new year begins, North Korea is signaling a major policy shift, abandoning efforts to unite with its neighbor to the south. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, it is even threatening to take the South by force of arms, possibly including nuclear ones.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has recently been telling his military to prepare for a war he thinks is increasingly likely. This is how he put it in a speech to a party meeting a couple of weeks ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM JONG UN: (Through interpreter) We must see as fact the possibility that a war can break out on the Korean Peninsula at any time due to the enemy's reckless attempts to invade us and prepare to keep pace with our military's powerful action to suppress the whole southern territory.

KUHN: Kim's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, also tried to suppress the South in 1950 by launching the Korean War.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A highly trained and well-equipped North Korean army swarmed across the 38th parallel to attack unprepared South Korean defenders.

KUHN: Some experts are concerned that Kim Jong Un may also resort to the use of force.

SIEGFRIED HECKER: We don't know for sure what that military option is - what the timing of that military option is.

KUHN: Siegfried Hecker is professor emeritus at Stanford and former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which has helped to build the U.S.' nuclear arsenal.

HECKER: But all the signs today point in the direction that he's serious about taking a military option and perhaps going to war.

KUHN: Oh Gyeong-Seob is an expert on North Korean politics at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government think tank in Seoul. He, too, is concerned by Kim's shift.

OH GYEONG-SEOB: (Through interpreter) There's no evidence to believe that he has or hasn't - especially that he hasn't - made a decision to go to war. But he's talking and acting as if he's almost determined to go to war.

KUHN: Many people in Seoul and Washington may dismiss Kim's threats as more of the usual saber-rattling, but Hecker says Kim has made a strategic choice this time, not just a tactical one.

HECKER: And that strategic decision reflects decades of North Korea interaction with the United States and, of course, with South Korea.

KUHN: Kim's conclusion, he says, is that he can't cut a deal with the U.S., and he can't reunify with the South. That's a big change because, for decades, Pyongyang has described the two Koreas as one nation that must be reunified. But Kim's language in his speech to the party meeting was very different.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM: (Through interpreter) It is unbefitting our prestige and position to discuss the issue of reunification with a strange clan that is no more than a colonial stooge of the U.S.

KUHN: North Korean politics expert Oh Gyeong-Seop says that the unification issue is linked to domestic politics in the North. South Korean culture is spreading among North Koreans, including officials, he says, and Kim Jong Un sees it as a mortal threat.

OH: (Through interpreter) North Korea needs to forcefully curb the spread of South Korean culture or admiration of South Korea, and friendly inter-Korean ties are not very helpful in rooting those out among the North Korean people.

KUHN: On Thursday, several North Korean websites with propaganda directed at South Koreans about reunification all went offline. North Korea offered no explanation for the move, but the implication seemed to be it was pulling the plug on efforts to win southern hearts and minds. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.