Asia Pacific

North Korea blows up South Korea joint office in rebuke of Seoul

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office on its side of the border, in an explosive rebuke to Seoul that appeared designed to draw maximum global attention with little immediate risk of war.

The move represented North Korea’s most serious provocation in years and follows an escalating series of threats against South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s government.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency said in a statement that the office — the most concrete achievement from series of summits between the two Koreas in 2018 was — was “tragically ruined with a terrific explosion.”

In Seoul, Moon convened his top security advisers and put the country’s military on higher alert. South Korea’s presidential office said later that it will respond sternly if North Korea continues to raise tensions.

The destruction of the office “broke the expectations of all people who hope for the development of inter-Korean relations and lasting peace on the peninsula,” deputy national security adviser Kim You-geun told a briefing.

“We’re making clear that the North is entirely responsible for all the consequences this might cause,” he said.

South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who was at parliament when the explosion occurred across the border, said the move had been “expected.”

The destruction of the building comes about a week after Kim Jong Un’s regime abandoned its operations at the South Korea-funded facility, which allowed officials from both sides to communicate around the clock. North Korea has been seeking to raise pressure on Moon in frustration over Seoul’s continued support for the U.S.-led sanctions campaign that’s hobbled its economy.

Smoke rises in the North Korean border town of Kaesong on Tuesday. | YONHAP / VIA AP
Smoke rises in the North Korean border town of Kaesong on Tuesday. | YONHAP / VIA AP

While it wasn’t immediately clear how the allies would react, Kim’s target seemed chosen to embarrass Moon without provoking a military response from South Korea or U.S. President Donald Trump. Moon has spent much of his presidency seeking better ties with Pyongyang, sometimes putting himself at odds with more hawkish voices in the Trump administration.

“We can expect Pyongyang will continue with similar military acts, but not enough that would force Seoul to retaliate in kind with force,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser for Northeast Asia and Nuclear Policy at the International Crisis Group. “We should remember that the liaison office was essentially already dead, so, if there’s a real problem, then it’s for South Korean taxpayers.”

The incident was among the most serious provocations since 2010, when North Korea was suspected of torpedoing a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, and a few months later shelling a South Korean island, killing two soldiers and two civilians. The attacks threatened to spill into open fighting, but tensions were defused amid concerns about the devastation from another war.

A man watches a TV screen showing a news program about the demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office building, at the main railway station in Seoul on Tuesday. North Korea blew up the liaison office building just north of the heavily armed border with South Korea earlier in the day in a dramatic display of anger that sharply raises tensions on the Korean Peninsula and puts pressure on Washington and Seoul amid deadlocked nuclear diplomacy. The letters read 'North Korea, demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office building in Kaesong.' | YONHAP / VIA AP
A man watches a TV screen showing a news program about the demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office building, at the main railway station in Seoul on Tuesday. | YONHAP / VIA AP

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a daily briefing soon after the incident that the country hoped for peace on the Korean Peninsula, without mentioning the liaison office. China is North Korea’s main political backer and trading partner, giving it a key role in implementing international sanctions against North Korea.

The liaison office, opened two years ago, was part of moves to reduce threats along the border as Kim also engaged Trump in talks about his nuclear program. The office allowed for constant communication between the two sides for the first time since the start of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Earlier Tuesday, North Korea said it was reviewing a plan to send troops into some areas of the Demilitarized Zone, without specifying what parts of the buffer zone in the heavily fortified border area it was considering entering. The statement appeared to be referring to a region near the office on the western side of the peninsula and a closed joint resort in the east around Mount Kumgang, the Yonhap news agency reported.

Besides the liaison office, the North Korean border city of Kaesong, where smoke and an explosion were observed Tuesday, is also home to an industrial park that was jointly established with South Korea and has been shuttered amid tensions between the two rivals.

An image from a thermal observation device shows the explosion of the inter-Korean liaison office at North Korea's Kaesong industrial complex, as seen from a South Korean observation post in Paju on Tuesday. | DONG-A ILBO / VIA AFP-JIJI
An image from a thermal observation device shows the explosion of the inter-Korean liaison office at North Korea’s Kaesong industrial complex, as seen from a South Korean observation post in Paju on Tuesday. | DONG-A ILBO / VIA AFP-JIJI

Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, said the latest action illustrated North Korea’s “strong will” to “completely shut off” relations with the South.

“North Korea is working toward re-militarization of the Kaesong industrial complex,” Cheong said. “And blowing up the liaison office in the complex would just be the first step on their road map.”

North Korea continued to lay the blame on anti-Kim leaflets flown across the border by South Korean-based activists, saying the country was compelled to “force human scum, and those who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes.”

South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon (center left) and Ri Son Gwon (center right), chairman of the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification (center right), attend at an opening ceremony for the two Koreas' first liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea, in September 2018.  | KOREA POOL / YONHAP / VIA AP
South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon (center left) and Ri Son Gwon (center right), chairman of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification (center right), attend at an opening ceremony for the two Koreas’ first liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea, in September 2018. | KOREA POOL / YONHAP / VIA AP

The regime went ahead with the move, even though Moon’s government last week revoked the licenses of two groups involved and urged a criminal investigation into their leaders.

Over the years, North Korea has often threatened military action — saying it would turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” and sink the Japanese archipelago — but has taken few steps that could escalate into open conflict with the U.S. and its allies since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

“It often bluffs, and we have seen lots of that before,” said Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science and director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “However, when it comes to concrete actions North Korea has been prudent as it understands the huge costs associated with imprudent actions.”

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