Pyongyang threatens to shut down liaison office
North Korea in an angry statement from its top inter-Korean agency announced it would pull out from the inter-Korean liaison office over South Korea's failure to prevent activists from distributing propaganda across the border.
First Vice Department Director Kim Yo-jong — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s younger sister — instructed the United Front Department (UFD) to look into implementing a statement she gave Thursday, in which she warned that the South “will be forced to pay a dear price” if they do not stop leaflet distributions.
“We do not hide that we have had long in mind decisive measures to fundamentally remove all provocations from the south and to completely shut down and remove all the contact leverage with the south side,” read an English-language statement from a UFD spokesman from Friday.
“As the first thing, we will definitely withdraw the idling north-south joint liaison office housed in the Kaesong Industrial Zone to be followed by effectuation of various measures which we had already implied.”
The inter-Korean liaison office in the North’s border city of Kaesong is the two Koreas’ sole fixed communication office, established as a result of the first inter-Korean summit in April 2018. The office has been left vacant since January however, when both governments agreed to temporarily shut it down due to the coronavirus epidemic.
Alarm was raised in Seoul over the fate of the office — perhaps the only lasting testament to the inter-Korean détente sought by the Moon Jae-in administration — when Kim Yo-jong said Pyongyang could pull the plug on the office along with already suspended inter-Korean projects like the Kaesong Industrial Complex, Mount Kumgang tours and an inter-Korean military agreement signed in September 2018.
The UFD statement directly addressed the response given by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification — Seoul’s top inter-Korean agency — to Kim’s comments from Thursday, claiming Seoul was feigning ignorance of the leaflet scatterings and belatedly taking measures against the acts without sincerity.
Yoh Sang-key, the spokesman for the Unification Ministry, said Thursday the South Korean government was preparing a bill to ban the distribution of leaflets, which has long been a headache for successive administrations in Seoul hoping to avoid tensions in the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
South Korean activists, many of them defectors from the North, regularly float balloons carrying propaganda condemning North Korea’s communist regime across the border. On May 31, a civic group called Fighters for a Free North Korea dispatched 500,000 leaflets, 2,000 $1 bills and 1,000 computer memory cards to the North, triggering Kim Yo-jong to slam Seoul for turning a blind eye to such a “sordid and wicked act of hostility.”
South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul on Friday stressed that the leaflets were creating unnecessary tension with the North, after meeting with a group of 10 border region mayors and county heads who called on the central government to restrict leaflet spreading.
While the North’s UFD statement acknowledged steps by the South to regulate leaflet distributions prompted by Kim Yo-jong’s statement, it added that taking that action now shows that Seoul signed a military agreement with Pyongyang to halt hostile actions along the demilitarized zone despite a lack of legal guarantees on its part.
“[South Korea] will be left with no words until the bill is adopted and put into effect,” the statement read. “We are about to start the work that can hurt the south side soon to make it suffer from annoyance.”
Pulling out from the office may be the first step in what the UFD called an “evil cycle of the confrontation” that it said Pyongyang was determined to pursue in order to turn Seoul’s “nightmare into reality.”
The remark suggests the regime could follow up the action by bulldozing the Kaesong Industrial Complex and scrapping the two Koreas' September military agreement, effectively rendering inter-Korean relations back to the state they were in before the first summit at Panmunjom in April 2018.
South Korea's Unification Ministry responded to the UFD with a succinct statement Sunday, saying Seoul remained committed to respecting and implementing the joint inter-Korean agreement reached at Panmunjom. No mention was made on the question of the liaison office.
Pyongyang’s move testifies to its ongoing frustration over South Korea’s refusal to depart from U.S.-led sanctions regime on the North ahead of major steps toward denuclearization.
Since the collapse of the second North Korea-U.S. summit at Hanoi in February last year, which dashed hopes of a quick compromise of the nuclear issue, the North has been scaling up pressure toward Seoul gradually in hopes that South Korean President Moon Jae-in takes active steps to reopen economic exchanges in spite of Washington.
Though Moon's administration has persistently tried to persuade the Donald Trump administration, Moon has yet to take measures to salvage the relationship with Pyongyang at the risk of endangering Seoul’s alliance with the United States.
Analysts say Kim Yo-jong and the UFP statements suggests the regime’s patience with the South has run out, interpreting the South Korean government’s inability to stop leaflet distributions as a sign that it has little autonomy to take steps towards improving relations.
“In particular, the North has shown intense displeasure with regards to the South Korean government’s attitude toward defector groups’ hostile actions toward the North, as well as naïve interpretations about Kim Yo-jong’s statement in Seoul,” said Lim Eul-chul, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in South Korea.
“This is a statement that reflects major disappointment with the lack of a clear drive on the South Korean government’s part to implement the inter-Korean agreements signed by both leaders with actions, and not with just words.”
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]