Seoul, South Korea
North Korea’s spectacular destruction of its liaison office with the South is part of a series of staged provocations aimed at forcing concessions from Seoul and Washington, analysts say.
The South’s President Moon Jae-in initially brokered a dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington, but the North now blames him for not persuading the US to relax sanctions.
Inter-Korean relations have been in deep freeze for months, following the collapse of a summit in Hanoi between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump.
That meeting foundered on what the nuclear-armed North would be willing to give up in exchange for a loosening of sanctions.
“Internally, North Korea is deeply disappointed in Moon and appears determined to end inter-Korean ties,” said Kim Keun-sik, professor of political science at Kyungnam University.
“By doing so, it is sending a message in its brinkmanship tactics to Trump that he should resume talks or lift economic sanctions as it has demanded so long.”
Ostensibly, this month’s developments have been triggered by anti-Pyongyang leaflets sent by defectors, but that is a longstanding practice.
“This is a staged provocation cycle rather than a one-off response,” said North Korea specialist Leif-Eric Easley of Ewha University.
“Pyongyang is damaging inter-Korean relations to ratchet up pressure in search of international concessions,” he added. “The decision to pressure Seoul is a strategy, not a tactic.”
Step by step
The North’s actions appear to be carefully calibrated, with Pyongyang drawing out the process by issuing multiple incremental warnings from different official sources — leadership, government departments and the military — ahead of each step it takes.
Equally, while the symbolism of Tuesday’s destruction of the liaison office was unmistakable, the building it blew up had not been used for months, was unoccupied, and — crucially — lay on its side of the border.
Similarly, the joint project locations where it declared it would bolster its military presence have been inactive for years.
The Kaesong Industrial Zone, where Southern companies used to employ Northern workers, paying Pyongyang for their services, was shut under the previous Southern administration, and Southern tourist visits to Mount Kumgang came to a sudden stop in 2008 after a Northern soldier shot one dead.
Resumption of either would likely violate international sanctions imposed on the North over its banned weapons programs, limiting Moon’s room to maneuver, despite his repeated touting of inter-Korean co-operation.
For its part, Seoul appears to have tried to prevent the situation escalating.
Within hours of the first denunciation of the leaflet-sending by Kim’s powerful sister Kim Yo Jong, it announced it would introduce a ban on such activities, despite the implications for freedom of speech and assembly in the democratic South.
The unification ministry subsequently filed a police complaint against two such groups.
Critics say that such acquiescence will only encourage Pyongyang to issue more and larger demands.
Moon supporters have sought to interpret the North’s comments as indicating Pyongyang wants Seoul to intervene with Washington.
But Seoul’s patience may be wearing thin: on Wednesday the presidential Blue House explicitly criticized Kim Yo Jong, calling some of her remarks “senseless” and “very rude”.
Fire and fury
The US could be next in North Korea’s sights: Pyongyang has warned Washington to stay out of inter-Korean affairs if it wants to ensure a smooth presidential election in November.
“The North is sending a message to the US that it could do something similarly provocative and dramatic in terms of US-North relations if Washington keeps its approach as before,” said Hong Min, director of the North Korean division at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
But such a move would be fraught with risk for Pyongyang.
US President Donald Trump — who faces an increasingly difficult fight in the light of the coronavirus epidemic — has long portrayed North Korea as a diplomatic success.
He has also made clear that he would consider another nuclear test or ICBM launch a red line. During the tensions of 2017 his threats of “fire and fury” caused genuine alarm in the North.
“The North should realize its brinkmanship tactic will not work this time, neither with Washington nor Seoul”, said Kyungnam’s Kim.
“If it needs a change in status quo so desperately, then it must change its calculations instead of expecting the US to do so.”