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On Tuesday, North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office on their side of the border after issuing several recent threats of military action against its southern neighbor.
South Korean border guards heard an explosion and saw smoke rising from Kaesong, the North Korean border town where the government building was located. Shortly after, a statement from the North Korean government mouthpiece, KCNA confirmed that the liaison office building had been “tragically ruined with a terrific explosion.”
The liaison office, which opened in 2018, was the first channel for constant communication between North and South Korean leaders since the 1950-53 Korean War. The office was staffed by officials from both countries but closed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
North Korea has recently cut all communication ties with South Korea with Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, warning over the weekend that “before long, a tragic scene of the North-South joint liaison office completely collapsed would be seen.”
Citing the South Korean government’s failure to contain North Korean defectors from sending anti-North Korea leaflets over the border, Kim Yo Jong said that it was necessary to “[settle] accounts with the riff-raff who dared hurt the absolute prestige of our Supreme Leader … our country, and it’s great dignity.”
“By using my power endorsed by the Supreme Leader, our party and the country, I give instructions to the arm of the department responsible for dealing with the enemy to decisively take further action,” she declared.
After the explosion, she confirmed that they were compelled to follow through with their threats to “force human scum and those, who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes.”
This move comes despite the fact that the South Korean government has revoked the licenses of the two activist groups responsible for recent leaflet launching events and opened investigations into the leaders after they “directly violated the agreements made between the leaders of the South and the North.”
Such activities “instigated tension between the South and North and brought danger to the life and safety of the border area residents,” said South Korean Unification Ministry spokesperson Yoh Sang Key at a public briefing last week.
However, Kim Yo Jong did not appear to be satisfied with the South’s management.
“If the South Korean authorities have now capability and courage to carry out at once the thing they have failed to do for the past two years, why are the North-South relations still in stalemate like now," she questioned.
Park Sang Hak, a leading activist responsible for the leaflet launch, refused to comment on the explosion. “I don’t care about the demolition at all. Don’t ask me. Ask the crazy boy Kim Jong Un,” he said.
Although Northern officials have stated that their actions were provoked by the South’s failure to contain anti-Pyongyang (the capital of North Korea) campaigns, some analysts believe that Pyongyang may also be seeking to manufacture a crisis to pressure Seoul while nuclear negotiations with the United States, a close political ally of South Korea, are at a standstill.
“North Korea is frustrated that the South has failed to offer an alternative plan to revive the US-North talks, let alone create a right atmosphere for the revival,” said Cheong Seong-chang – a director of the Sejong Institute’s Centre for North Korean Studies.
“It has concluded the South has failed as a mediator in the process.”
Many analysts have come to the consensus that the bombing acted as a dramatic signal of North Korea’s anger without actually provoking a war.
“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."
Yoon Sung Suk, a political-science professor at Chonnam National University in South Korea, said that the North was punishing South Korean President Moon Jae In for his alliance with the US, who imposed economic sanctions on the hermit kingdom, despite signing a 2018 inter-Korean agreement that called for peace, economic prosperity and reunification.
“The North is hitting Moon for his failure to move forward and for sticking to sanctions,” said Yoon.
“This is also an indirect message to the US that the North is prepared to go to extremes in sticking to its stance it that won’t disarm itself without sanctions relief,” he added, citing unsuccessful US-North Korea summit meetings that aimed to denuclearize North Korea in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions.
The US did not immediately comment, but did mention that the US President Donald Trump was aware of the North Korean move and that they were in close coordination with the South Korean allies.
The State Department also announced that Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, the top US official dealing with North Korea, would travel to Hawaii with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo next week for talks with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi.
Sources speaking to Reuters said that the hastily arranged Wednesday meeting between Yang and Pompeo will discuss various issues including North Korea.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, also commented on the incident in a daily briefing expressing his hopes for peace on the Korean Peninsula, without mentioning the liaison office. As North Korea’s main political ally and trading partner, China has a key role in potentially implementing international sanctions against North Korea.
While South Korea did not indicate an intent to retaliate, Unification Ministry called the demolition of the liaison building a “senseless act” that had “destroyed the hopes of those who wished for peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
The country’s National Security Council also warned North Korea of a “strong response” if they continued to take further action.
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