North Korea’s destruction of a landmark liaison office with South Korea Tuesday is likely only the first of many steps Pyongyang can take to signal impatience with Seoul and its ally Washington, analysts said.
The office, built during a warming phase in inter-Korean relations in 2018, was destroyed in a “terrific explosion,” North Korea’s state-run KCNA reported, days after the country said it was cutting all communications with Seoul over anti-Pyongyang leaflets sent by balloon from the South.
KCNA said the blast was “corresponding to the mindset of the enraged people to surely force human scum and those, who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes,” referring to North Korean refugees and defectors now residing in the South.
Balloons criticizing Kim Jong Un and his regime sent by activists and defectors were the target of bellicose statements from Kim Yo Jong, Kim’s sister and the country’s propaganda chief, as well as officially staged anti-South Korean rallies in North Korea.
But Tuesday’s destruction of the liaison office, which was located inside North Korea, north of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, came despite South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to stop the leaflets with criminal complaints and license cancellations in the hopes of preserving engagement with Pyongyang.
“Blowing up the North-South Liaison Office conveys Kim Jong Un’s graphic rejection of President Moon’s attempts at rapprochement. It is also a reminder to the United States that North Korea cannot be ignored,” said former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel, in a statement released by the Asia Society.
Pyongyang had hoped that engaging with Seoul and Washington over the past few years would bring relief from U.N. and U.S. sanctions aimed at depriving Pyongyang of cash and resources that could be funneled into its nuclear and missile programs.
But after Kim Jong Un held a series of summits with U.S. President Donald Trump and with Moon, sanctions remain in place, with Washington insisting Pyongyang must first take steps to give up its nuclear weapons.
“Ramping up pressure through escalating provocations is how Kim makes the point that without sanctions relief, sooner or later he will also blow up Trump’s claim to have ‘ended the threat from North Korea," said Russel.
South vows strong response
World leaders expressed dismay at the blow to peaceful inter-Korean relations.
“The Secretary-General is concerned by the latest developments on the Korean Peninsula,” a U.N. spokesperson told RFA’s Korean Service.
“The Secretary-General calls for the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue leading to peaceful solutions that benefit peace and prosperity for all,” the spokesperson added.
The European Union expressed deep regret and told RFA the severance of communication lines was “unacceptable,” while the UK called it “a troubling step,” and Germany said it was “concerned about North Korea’s steps towards escalation.”
South Korea put the blame on North Korea.
"The government makes clear that all responsibility caused by this rests totally with the North Korean side," the South Korean National Security Council said in a statement.
"We sternly warn that if North Korea takes steps further aggravating the situation, we will respond strongly.”
Pyongyang’s next provocation
A South Korean expert predicted that North Korea’s next move will be to cancel the inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement, a September 2019 pact to reduce military tensions and prevent accidental clashes.
“[We] believe that Kim Yo Jong, the First Deputy Director of the Workers’ Party of Korea will quickly move on the next step—terminating the 9.19 inter-Korean military agreement,” Park Won Gon of Handong University told RFA.
Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute said Pyongyang likely would next dismantle the Kaesong Industrial complex, which operated from 2004 until it was closed amid tensions in 2016, or try to use the factories where South Korean firms employed North Korean workers for military purposes.
North Korea now has no option but to continue to provoke the South, as quickly returning to negotiations would be a sign of weakness to its people, according to the Choi Kang of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
Choi told RFA that now that the North Korean public has been made aware of the fate of the liaison office, a policy reversal would be impossible.
“If it has only appeared in the external propaganda media, it is possible to change the direction. But it is impossible to change the policy in one day because it has been published in [North Korea’s official] newspaper and the North Koreans have heard about it,” Choi said.
“I think the current situation will last quite a long time.”
Shore up alliance with U.S.
Several U.S.-based experts told RFA that the best response to North Korea’s latest actions and threats would be for the United States to beef up cooperation with South Korea.
“The U.S. and South Korean governments should be careful not to overreact to North Korea’s dramatic efforts to escalate tensions and increase leverage,” Frank Aum of the United States Institute of Peace told RFA.
“Unfortunately, South Korea is in a difficult position and stuck between wanting to advance inter-Korean relations but not creating fissures in the US-ROK Alliance. The Alliance will need to maintain strong military readiness and deterrence and continue to warn North Korea against increasing tensions on the Peninsula,” said Aum.
Under President Trump, Washington has seen a weakening in its alliances all over the world, and this trend must be reversed to deal with North Kore, said The RAND Corporation’s Soo Kim.
“The U.S. should be strengthening its alliance with South Korea. We see that there are fissures within the alliance with South Korea and also with other countries around the world,” Kim told RFA.
“Whatever leverage that the United States had through alliances and even through maintaining our principles is starting to wear away, and North Korea has been taking advantage of those opportunities,” she said.
David Maxwell of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said North Korea’s recent belligerence “is not simply about testing the alliance. It is about driving a wedge in the alliance and splitting it altogether.”
“The proper response is to first, increase ROK-US alliance readiness and second, ensure the protection of the escapees/defectors who have been threatened by the Kim family regime,” Maxwell said.
Analyst Ken Gause of CNA said “there’s not much we can do” other than seek dialogue with North Korea.
“If we want to solve the issue of North Korea, you need to engage Pyongyang. That means the U.S. has to take the lead and make appropriate concessions to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table,” Gause told RFA.
Reported by Albert Hong, Hee Jung Yang, Seung Wook Hong, Jeong Eun Lee and Kyung Ha Rhee for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun.