In an interview with CNA’s Lim Yun Suk on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Mr Shin Won-sik said while the threats cannot be disregarded, South Korea should not be swayed by the North’s bluster. 

North Korea may step up provocations ahead of US presidential election: South Korea’s defence minister

North Korea could make threats to put the Korean Peninsula on the “brink of war”, ahead of the United States presidential election on Nov 5, warned South Korea’s Defence Minister Shin Won-sik.

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04 Jun 2024 06:12PM

SINGAPORE: North Korea could make threats to put the Korean Peninsula on the “brink of war”, ahead of the United States presidential election on Nov 5, warned South Korea’s Defence Minister Shin Won-sik. 

But the actual possibility that it will initiate a war “is very low”, he told CNA on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Sunday (Jun 2). 

“If North Korea were to start a war, it would mean the downfall of Kim Jong Un’s regime. Although we cannot disregard the threat entirely, we should not be swayed by North Korea’s bluster,” Mr Shin added. 

“North Korea developed nuclear weapons for survival, not for self-destruction, so I believe that being overly influenced by North Korea’s war threats is more dangerous.”


Tensions remain high at the border between the two sides. 

South Korea on Tuesday fully suspended a 2018 military pact with North Korea aimed at preventing conflict, in response to trash-filled balloons launched by Pyongyang over the border.

Last week, North Korea floated hundreds of balloons – filled with rubbish including cigarette butts and paper waste – into South Korea. 

Pyongyang said on Sunday that it would stop the practice, claiming it has been an effective countermeasure against propaganda sent by activists in the South. 

“At the end of last year, after North Korea declared that it would terminate the Sep 19 military agreement, it fully restored the 11 guard posts that had been withdrawn. South Korea, in cooperation with the United Nations Command, has taken corresponding measures,” said Mr Shin. 

“Additionally, since the beginning of this year, North Korea has been conducting extensive military activities both along the Demilitarized Zone, which marks the ground border, and the Northern Limit Line, which marks the maritime border. They have been actively training their infiltration units and engaging in other military exercises,” he noted.

Various objects including what appeared to be trash that crossed the inter-Korean border with a balloon believed to have been sent by North Korea, are pictured in Seoul, in this picture provided and released by the Defence Ministry, Jun 2, 2024. (Photo: The Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS)


While Mr Shin believes a full-scale war may not be imminent, he said South Korea is prepared for the North’s provocations or infiltration attempts.

The country, along with the US, is looking at offensive measures in response to the evolving threats. 

Last month, key special operations officials from South Korea and the US met to explore ways to enhance special warfare capabilities. 

They discussed employing special operations capabilities more offensively rather than defensively, sharing operational doctrines, and improving the interoperability of weapon systems, said Mr Shin, who hosted the rare meeting.

Both countries also spoke about how to accept the technology of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, including artificial intelligence, and improve future special operational capabilities.

These measures may be applied to joint military drills between Seoul and Washington this summer. 

“The overall framework remains unchanged. However, the content within this framework has been adjusted to focus on the heightened nuclear and missile threats from North Korea,” said Mr Shin. 

“Additionally, recent forms of warfare – such as hybrid warfare, cognitive warfare and grey zone provocations – have been incorporated into the exercises. This includes not only the joint military exercises but also the government exercises, making this a significant difference.”

On its close cooperation with the US, Mr Shin said South Korea pays about US$2.7 billion a year to support American troops stationed in the country.


Meanwhile, Pyongyang has completed preparations for its seventh nuclear test, said Mr Shin.

North Korea’s last nuclear weapon test was in September 2017. 

Mr Shin noted: “The reason they have not done it yet, and when they might do it, is essentially the same: North Korea is looking for the moment when the strategic impact would be the biggest. If they conduct a seventh nuclear test, they will face significant sanctions.

“Even though China and Russia might oppose these sanctions, if North Korea goes through with the test, it will be difficult for China and Russia to oppose it entirely. Therefore, (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un is likely carefully considering the timing to maximise benefits over losses from the nuclear test.”

Mr Shin suggested that this could possibly take place before the US presidential election in November. 

“What options does North Korea have? First, they need to shock the US and the world. The current level of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests with lofted trajectories might not be enough,” he said of the long-range missiles. 

“They might conduct a normal ICBM launch to demonstrate its full range, possibly dropping it in the Pacific Ocean without causing damage. Additionally, if they successfully demonstrate re-entry vehicle technology, their leverage would increase significantly.”

A separate option would be to carry out another nuclear test, said Mr Shin.

“This test would likely be more sophisticated and demonstrate a more advanced nuclear explosive capability compared to previous tests,” he added.


In the interview with CNA, Mr Shin voiced concerns about growing relations between North Korea and Russia.

He noted that Moscow has been offering technical help to Pyongyang, such as for its spy satellite launch last week that ended in failure.

“If Russia continues to provide technical support, North Korea’s reconnaissance satellite capabilities are expected to improve rapidly,” he added. 

“With enhanced reconnaissance satellite capabilities, the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities will increase significantly.”

There are also indications that Russia is providing technology to modernise North Korea’s conventional military forces, including medium- and large-sized destroyers, fighter jets and tanks, Mr Shin pointed out. 

“The qualitative enhancement of North Korea’s military forces signifies increased instability on the Korean Peninsula.”

When asked how much faster North Korea could develop its weapons programme with Russia’s support, Mr Shin said it is “very difficult to answer with a specific number”. 

But he pointed out a crucial fact: North Korea has been requesting highly sophisticated nuclear and missile technologies from Russia. 

“These include technologies related to hypersonic missiles, ICBM re-entry and large nuclear-powered submarines capable of launching SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles). These are some of Russia’s most advanced technologies,” Mr Shin added.

“It is unlikely that Russia will easily give these technologies to North Korea. Nonetheless, the possibility remains.”