North Korea is literally blowing up its relationship with the South. But its bark looks bigger than its bite — at least for now.
Taking a page from its well-worn playbook on how to ratchet up tensions, Pyongyang on Wednesday said it had rejected an offer from Seoul to send envoys to help ease soaring tensions, instead vowing to redeploy troops to areas along the Demilitarized Zone, a day after symbolically blowing up a joint liaison office near the border.
What comes next remains unclear, but the moves — widely telegraphed in state-run media — “indicated some thinking about a larger plan,” said Jenny Town, managing editor of the North Norea-monitoring website 38 North. So far, she said, this plan has been “largely geared at South Korea and undoing the positive developments of inter-Korean agreements.”
In a flood of official statements and reports carried in state-run media Wednesday, the North said military units will be deployed to the Mount Kumgang tourist area on the country’s east coast and to the Kaesong industrial zone at the border, where the inter-Korean office was demolished. Both sites had been heavily touted as symbols of reconciliation between the two Koreas by the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
The North also said outposts at the DMZ that had been removed under a 2018 inter-Korea military agreement would be restored “to strengthen the guard over the front line,” while “all kinds of regular military exercises” near the border would be resumed.
In response, the South Korean military issued a statement warning against violating the agreement, adding that the North would “surely pay the price” if such actions are taken.
But Pyongyang reserved some of its harshest words for Moon.
In a dispatch carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, the North revealed that Moon had on Monday offered to send national security adviser Chung Eui-yong and spy chief Suh Hoon across the border as special envoys in a bid to tamp down soaring tensions between the two Koreas.
But Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and a top ruling party official, flatly rejected “the tactless and sinister proposal,” with a KCNA report saying that Moon must “clearly understand that such a trick will no longer work on us.”
“The solution to the present crisis between the North and the South caused by the incompetence and irresponsibility of the South Korean authorities is impossible and it can be terminated only when proper price is paid,” the report said.
In a separate, lengthy statement, Kim Yo Jong also lambasted Moon as “insane” over recent remarks on the fraying North-South ties, slamming him for “shameless and impudent words full of incoherence” and exhibiting “deep-seated pro-U.S. flunkeyism” in response to what it characterized as Seoul’s failure to unilaterally ease crushing sanctions on the North over its nuclear weapons program.
In a surprisingly harsh retort, a South Korean presidential Blue House spokesman called her words “senseless” and “very rude” and said it would “no longer tolerate the North’s unreasonable acts.”
Later Wednesday, South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul offered to resign for “failing to live up to the demands and expectations of our people for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula,” the Yonhap news agency quoted him as saying.
The strident response was unusual coming from the Moon administration, which has pushed for improved ties with the North, but — despite entreaties from Pyongyang — has refrained from going it alone on sanctions relief.
North Korea has ostensibly blamed the latest moves on Seoul’s alleged violation of previous peace accords by allowing activists to float propaganda leaflets across the border, but experts say the true goal is to coerce the South on sanctions while also trying to divert attention away from failed policymaking at home.
“Despite the image of normalcy that North Korea’s propaganda machinery is seeking to project, there is no doubt their economy is suffering from continued sanctions and the added drop in trade due to COVID-related border closures,” Jean Lee, a expert on the two Koreas at the Wilson Center think tank, said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic. The crisis has prevented neighboring China, the North’s sole formal ally, from actively providing it with an economic lifeline.
Observers say it is extremely unlikely that Seoul will break with Washington on sanctions, but note that another goal of Pyongyang’s may be to further drive a wedge between the allies, whose ties are already strained by the Trump’s administration’s demand that South Korea pay as much as $5 billion a year to support the U.S. troop presence there, up from $870 million under last year’s deal.
Such a move, said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at Australia’s Strategic Policy Institute, would “weaken the ability of the U.S. under Trump — or (Democratic presidential candidate Joe) Biden — to resume diplomacy in a strong bargaining position in the future.”
Pyongyang’s slow drip of announcements and its telegraphing of the moves Tuesday and Wednesday have also presented a chance for Kim Yo Jong — already one of her brother’s most trusted advisers and among the most powerful figures in the regime — to further burnish her role.
Town, of 38 North, said this “gives an opportunity for Kim Yo Jong to gain some experience on the military side of the equation to help broaden her experience and bona fides, while keeping power centralized in the family.”
When her brother’s weekslong absence earlier this year triggered rampant rumors of his death or incapacitation, Kim Yo Jong was touted as a possible successor. But even after Kim Jong Un’s reappearance, the view that she is being groomed for a key role in the regime remains.
“She is clearly making a determined move to cement her grip on power for the future, and demonstrating her resolve in a military crisis with the South would reinforce her credentials with the (Korean People’s Army) — a key component of the regime,” said Davis.
For the time being, analysts believe that the North will follow its tried and true script of manufacturing a crisis to gain concessions.
“North Korea will keep things in the ‘gray zone’ — below a level that would justify a response from the U.S. — and so they are picking a fight with limited, but significant provocations along the DMZ,” Davis said.
“That’s potentially dangerous, in terms of its potential for escalation, but they are not challenging Trump’s ‘red lines’ on long-range missile or nuclear testing — yet.”