Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

North Korea's Kim backtracks on military threat, but more surprises likely in store

After weeks of vitriol, leader offers apparent off-ramp for defusing tensions with Seoul

by Jesse Johnson

STAFF WRITER

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has offered an apparent off-ramp for defusing rising tensions with the South, just one day ahead of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War — a stunning reversal after weeks of his regime spewing vitriol at Seoul.

On Wednesday, the official Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim “took stock of the prevailing situation and suspended the military action plans against the south” during a “preliminary meeting” a day earlier of the ruling party’s Central Military Commission (CMC).

The report did not elaborate, but the decision came a week after the regime blew up an inter-Korean liaison office. One day after the demolition of the office, the two countries’ de facto embassy, it further ratcheted up tensions by declaring North-South ties a “catastrophe” and threatening to “turn the front line into a fortress,” including by redeploying troops to two areas that had been demilitarized under deals with the South.

The regime, primarily through Kim’s powerful younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, had blamed the latest flare-up on Seoul’s alleged violation of previous peace accords by allowing defector-led activist groups to float propaganda leaflets across the border.

The KCNA report did not say why the North Korean leader, who presided over the meeting via videoconference, had halted the plan, but said the CMC had discussed “major military policy,” including bolstering its “war deterrent.” It did not give a date for a more expanded meeting of the powerful body.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it was closely monitoring the situation, with Reuters reporting that the ministry believed the mention of videoconferencing, which came amid the global coronavirus pandemic, was a first. North Korea has said it has recorded zero cases of the deadly virus, a claim health experts have said is dubious.

Analysts said the decision not to endorse the military plans may have been telegraphed.

According to a June 17 statement by the Korean People’s Army’s General Staff and carried in state media, those plans had not been greenlighted at the time of their announcement, having had to first go before the CMC “for ratification at an earliest date.”

Jenny Town, managing editor of the North Korea-monitoring website 38 North, noted that the process was reminiscent of Kim’s August 2017 decision to walk back his threat to rain “an enveloping fire” of missiles around the U.S. territory of Guam, home to a major U.S. military base.

Coming in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s vow to rain “fire and fury” on the North if it threatened the United States or its allies, the stand-down, in which Kim said he would instead “watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees,” allowed for a brief de-escalation amid fears of war.

“While (last week’s) statement was strong … it admittedly was not yet ‘approved,’” Town said. “In this instance, it still gave Kim Jong Un room to ratchet the situation up or down. It seems he decided against taking these actions.”

The destroyed inter-Korean joint liaison office and administration building are seen in a satellite image released Monday. | MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES / VIA AFP-JIJI
The destroyed inter-Korean joint liaison office and administration building are seen in a satellite image released Monday. | MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES / VIA AFP-JIJI

In a possible sign of the shift, South Korean media reported that the North had removed some of the propaganda loudspeakers it recently installed along the tense border, while its propaganda outlets had withdrawn articles critical of South Korea en masse.

Experts called the conciliatory steps highly unusual and said they could be part of an attempt by Pyongyang to manufacture a crisis in order to reap concessions or strategic gains.

“It might be that it’s all a show intended to make it look like Kim is holding back the military hawks,” said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official and author of a book on the 2017 North Korean nuclear crisis. “But it could also be about signaling intent to reform internally — unlikely — or positioning Kim Yo Jong as a hawk aligned with the military, while he can rise above it and seem more cool-headed.”

While the idea of a good cop-bad cop act tracked well with the recent events and the Kim regime’s well-worn playbook, it left open the question of why now.

One reason could be to create a distraction as the North grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic and suffocating U.N. and unilateral sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.

“They’re having lots of trouble on the home front — sanctions seem to be biting, there are rumors of COVID cases, and the leader hasn’t delivered on his grand ambitions to reposition North Korea in the world,” said Joshua Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California. “So it may be meant as theater for the home audience. It certainly resets inter-Korean relations back to zero.”

But Pollack also said the moves could be seen as bargaining tactics intended to coerce South Korean President Moon Jae-in into breaking with Washington on sanctions while at the same time further chipping away at the country’s increasingly brittle alliance with the U.S.

Seoul is currently at loggerheads with Washington over cost-sharing for the basing of U.S. troops in South Korea. Trump has reportedly sought a massive increase in the amount Seoul currently pays.

Pollack said that while such a scenario was plausible, the North has “gone pretty far in dumping on Moon,” adding that there was little hope the South Korean leader would “deliver for Kim in defiance of Washington.”

Whatever the case, as opaque as the North Korean leader’s intentions are this time, history is likely to repeat itself.

“What’s clear is that it doesn’t suggest our dangerous moment has passed,” Jackson said. “Kim did this same restraint move in August 2017, which of course was neither the end nor even the peak of the nuclear crisis.”

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