Recent actions by Pyongyang have resulted in the cutting off of communication lines between both countries and the blowing up of the joint liaison office near the border. Inter-Korean relations seem to have reached a new low point and experts are scrambling to figure out what North Korea’s true motives are and whether it will carry out the other threats it previously made and if Kim Jong Un’s recent suspension of the country’s anti-ROK offensive is genuine. So, what exactly does Pyongyang want and why did they assume such an aggressive stance?
A balloon problem?
According to North Korea, their recent actions are justified because Seoul failed to take quick enough action to stop defectors and activists from spreading anti-DPRK propaganda across the border. The propaganda they are referring to ranges from USBs, South Korean dramas, US dollar bills, and information on the Kim regime that are delivered in large hydrogen balloons near the border. Activists see these materials as the best way of exposing North Koreans to the outside world. South Korean dramas can make an especially big impact on North Koreans, given the stark contrast between cities like Seoul and Pyongyang as well as the differences in dressing, speaking, architecture, free time, nutrition, and working conditions.
Activists have been sending these balloons for over a decade and it’s certainly not the first time Pyongyang has called Seoul out for it. But the extreme reaction suggests that this time is clearly different.
For one, the threats against Seoul started not with the North Korean leader himself but, instead, his sister Kim Yo Jong. She was the one who, on June 4, threatened to cut communication lines with Seoul by shutting down the inter-Korean liaison office and even threatened to scrap an inter-Korean military agreement. She called the defectors involved in the balloon launches “human scum” and “mongrel dogs” who betrayed their homeland and said it was “time to bring their owners to account,” referring to the government in Seoul.
That same day, Seoul responded by saying it planned to push new laws to ban activists from flying anti-Pyongyang leaflets over the border, but it was too late. The threats didn’t stop but instead intensified over the course of the next week. On June 13, Kim Yo Jong said this about inter-Korean relations: “I feel it is high time to surely break with the South Korean authorities.” She continued with a strong threat: “By exercising my power authorized by the Supreme Leader, our Party and the state, I gave an instruction to the arms of the department in charge of the affairs with enemy to decisively carry out the next action. Before long, a tragic scene of the useless north-south joint liaison office completely collapsed would be seen.”
And collapse it did.
New low-point for inter-Korean relations
On June 15, Pyongyang threatened to move armed troops back to the demilitarized zone; an action which would undo an agreement made in 2018 to turn that area into a ‘zone of peace’. The next day, North Korean state media issued the following statement: “Our army is keeping a close watch on the current situation in which the north-south relations are turning worse and worse, and getting itself fully ready for providing a sure military guarantee to any external measures to be taken by the Party and government.”
Later that day, they blew up the liaison office, just as Kim Yo Jong had threatened they would. A second statement was issued after the fact: “The relevant field of the DPRK put into practice the measure of completely destroying the north-south joint liaison office in the Kaesong Industrial Zone in the wake of cutting off all the communication liaison lines between the north and the south, 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.”
It’s difficult to believe that the true core of Pyongyang’s grievances lie in the balloon issue. They wouldn’t risk undoing over two years of diplomatic work with the South simply to make a point about some balloons. They have larger goals in mind.
To better understand these goals, it’s important to put this situation into context. North Korea’s economy has suffered a massive blow over the past few months due to its border closure with China as a result of the coronavirus. Much needed food-imports have been unable to make it into the country, resulting in a renewed food crisis. In fact, the UN recently estimated that nearly half of the North Korean population was food insecure. In the words of the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK: “An increasing number of families eat only twice a day or eat only corn, and some are starving.”
Pair this domestic chaos with stalled US talks and no progress on the inter-Korean front and you have a very frustrated DPRK on your hands. The blowing up of the liaison office was likely their way of venting these frustrations to the world in the hopes of maybe getting the US back at the negotiating table. Now more than ever, Pyongyang needs sanctions relief and, given the internal chaos currently transpiring in the US, they may see Trump as vulnerable and weakened at this time.
A wise gamble?
Despite the North’s recent provocative actions, it is unlikely to get any real concessions from Washington for the time being. Trump is more than preoccupied at home and can’t afford big missteps so near to an election. So far, Trump hasn’t been very outspoken about the issue but did make the decision to extend existing sanctions against North Korea for another year. This is probably the opposite of what Pyongyang wanted to happen. Therefore, their gamble does not seem to be paying off just yet.
Seoul will also have to decide what stance it chooses to adopt here. Will it put an end to its conciliatory tone and patience with Pyongyang? Or will it continue to be pushed into inaction by both the North and the US? It would be wise for Seoul to take a more firm stance against Pyongyang while pursuing policies that are in its long-term interest instead of always seeking approval from Washington before taking any action related to the DPRK.
The next few months will be crucial in determining the course of inter-Korean, and possibly US-DPRK, relations at least until the US presidential elections in November. Even though North Korea has softened its rhetoric and not taken further action since the liaison office incident, this is no time for neither Seoul nor Washington to get complacent.
Although peace with the North is the ultimate long-term goal, the immediate priority is keeping South Korea safe from any more North Korean aggression. To do this, Seoul must remain on high alert and not allow Pyongyang to manipulate the South in any way.
Gabriela Bernal is a Korea analyst and current translator at The Daily NK. She holds degrees in international peace and security from King’s College London and human rights from Sciences Po Paris. She is also the founder of The Peninsula Report, a blog on Korean affairs. She has previously written for NOVAsia.