Pyongyang must return to talksNorth Korea is ratcheting up its hostile rhetoric again. Following an earlier warning to South Korea to stop allowing a group of North Korean defectors to dispatch balloons with propaganda leaflets across the border, Pyongyang threatened to shut down the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, an icon of exchanges so ardently promoted by the liberal Moon Jae-in administration. Less than five hours after the threat from Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, our Ministry of Unification held an emergency briefing and announced a plan to legislate a ban on sending the balloons to the north. The Blue House said the leaflets only damage inter-Korean relations.
In a strange turn, however, Pyongyang is beefing up its offensive against Seoul. One of its propaganda outlets denounced President Moon Jae-in’s pitch for cooperation as a “far-fetched demand,” while another mouthpiece called his administration “the most ignorant and incapable South Korean government in history.” Such malicious attacks suggest a complicated strategy beyond its outrage over the propaganda sent by North Korean defectors.
Pyongyang’s threat to close the inter-Korean office stemmed from the excruciating pain it has suffered from international sanctions and the Covid-19 outbreak. North Korea’s trade with China has shrunk by 90 percent on-year and its foreign reserves must be nearly empty. But U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has no room to pay heed to the country in the face of the pandemic and, more recently, a racial conflict triggered by the death of George Floyd.
North Korea wants to overcome a regime crisis by solidifying national integration and breaking a diplomatic deadlock with the United States by drawing its attention. After the Central Military Commission of the Workers Party announced a plan to “reinforce our nuclear deterrence” last month, Pyongyang will likely float the idea of conducting additional ICBM tests and developing a 3,000-ton-class submarine capable of launching SLBMs. Our military must get ready for all possible provocations from across the border.
North Korea wants to find a breakthrough to get over an unprecedented security and economic crisis. But such a belligerent approach only backfires. The more provocations it makes, the tougher the international sanctions get. Besides, China will find it more difficult to help its ally amid deepening conflict with Uncle Sam.
North Korea’s provocations will worsen Americans’ antipathy, which will help raise the possibility of Democratic candidate Joe Biden getting elected. Also, the North’s move will help discourage the Moon administration from accelerating inter-Korean exchanges. It is the time for the North to return to talks, not to provocations.