Washington – In a dramatic representation of current tensions on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea on June 16 literally blew up its joint liaison office with South Korea in the city of Kaesong, inside the borders of the hermit kingdom.
This followed a statement earlier this month, foreshadowing this move, by Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister and a rising star in the North Korean political firmament. Speculation is rife that she is being established as successor-designate to Kim Jong Un, who has no known adult children, and may be attempting to demonstrate her bona fides by taking a hard line against Seoul.
The day following Kim Yo Jong’s statement, North Korea more formally announced it would pull out of the joint liaison office, which had functioned as a two-way North-South embassy of sorts. Pyongyang attempted to justify its decision by complaining that Seoul did not stop North Korean defectors from sending balloons with anti-Kim leaflets over the border to the North. In May 2018, Seoul had made a commitment to end the balloon propaganda campaign.
More broadly, however, North Korea’s explosive move was intended as a dramatic provocation to blow up its relations with South Korea. This served as a repudiation of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and a signal to the United States of Pyongyang’s frustration that its diplomatic momentum with Washington — and any immediate prospects of sanction lifting — had come to a full stop.
North Korea is meanwhile threatening to deploy military forces in the Kaesong Industrial Zone as well as Mount Kumgang tourism areas, intended to become exemplars of North-South economic cooperation; go back on a 2018 agreement and reestablish guard posts in the Demilitarized Zone; and “resume all kinds of regular military exercises in the areas close to the border,” according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
These actions demonstrate the ephemeral nature of any North Korean “concessions” to date, or of any progress in North-South relations that Moon imagined he had received in exchange for helping deflate the U.S. maximum pressure campaign. All gone in a wink of Kim’s eye, effectively symbolized by the dramatic destruction of the $15 million building (paid for by South Korean taxpayers).
Setting aside the specifics, North Korea’s actions are not terribly surprising given the familiar pattern of Pyongyang escalating tensions before U.S. presidential elections as well as to express frustration, especially when feeling ignored.
We may also infer that North Korea is attempting to signal that, despite persistent health rumors surrounding Kim Jong Un, the North remains “strong.” Also, Kim may well have reason to act tough in order to placate domestic elites, whose expectations for sanction lifting were no doubt raised by the Trump-Kim rapprochement, only to be dashed when the U.S. would not accept a lopsided deal on denuclearization.
Pyongyang apparently feels safer disrupting its relations with Seoul, rather than with Washington. While there may well be further North Korean provocations in the run-up to the November U.S. presidential election, it would be imprudent for Kim to antagonize U.S. President Donald Trump or jeopardize his chances of reelection, given the time, effort and personal prestige Kim has spent to cultivate him. Additionally, Kim and his entourage might well assume that a Democratic administration led by Joe Biden would focus less on cutting a deal and more on North Korea’s deplorable human rights situation.
Given present circumstances, Washington is understandably preoccupied with COVID-19, economic disruptions, and widespread social justice protests. Also, the U.S. should not want to appear to be contributing to the downward spiral in North-South relations, for which it would shoulder a hefty amount of blame from the South Korean public. Therefore, it would seem questionable for the U.S. to, for example, ramp up joint exercises with South Korea this summer.
While there are still sure-fire means for North Korea to grab Washington’s attention, Kim may well consider them to be counterproductive at present. For example, were North Korea to conduct nuclear or ICBM tests, the U.S. would be compelled to react in a strong manner that Pyongyang would likely regret. Moreover, so would the international community, with increased prospect for tightening sanction regimes. China might even lower the boom on its erstwhile ally.
That said, a strong reaction by Beijing to North Korean provocations cannot be counted on now. Amid historically high China-U.S. tension in areas across the board, it is not an opportune time to expect Chinese cooperation on North Korea absent the most egregious behavior by Pyongyang.
Indeed, China may be pleased at North Korean actions which complicate Washington's calculus with regard to U.S.-China frictions, remind the U.S. that there is utility in having a good working relationship with China, and occupy some U.S. policymaking bandwidth. We might even speculate as to whether China is actually encouraging malfeasance by North Korea at this point as a distracting sideshow.
For its part, the U.S. should begin to shift to a post-rapprochement phase, with a public diplomacy campaign emphasizing how the Trump administration went the extra mile to try to denuclearize North Korea and establish better relations. The U.S. should deploy this point in support of quietly intensifying the network of sanctions vis-a-vis North Korea.
Unfortunately from the Japanese perspective, North Korea has little or no incentive at this time to engage with the the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe or make any progress on the abductee issue.
Diplomacy on the abductees is difficult to conduct in a vacuum, without the prospect for a broader thaw in political and economic relations. Japan abruptly suspending deployment of Aegis Ashore, an important element of the nation’s missile defense which also demonstrates the strength of its resolve, further disincentivizes Pyongyang from dealing with Tokyo at this time.
While it is always difficult to predict with specificity the course the mercurial North Korean regime will take, we might anticipate Pyongyang continuing its series of limited provocations in coming months aimed mainly at South Korea. North Korea will continue to make the case that it cannot be ignored, even as all eyes turn to Washington and the presidential election upon which so much, including the future of the Korean Peninsula, will depend.
Thomas Cynkin is a former U.S. charge d’affaires to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. He is vice president of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security.