Prepare for provocationsNorth Korea on Tuesday demolished the inter-Korean liaison office inside the Kaesong Industrial Complex. It took the action just three days after Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and vice director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, warned that South Koreans would soon witness such a tragic scene. The blasts were heard on the frontlines of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and black smoke arose from the explosion. The Ministry of National Defense said it had been observing signs of destruction with surveillance equipment from across the border.
The liaison office in Kaesong was a tangible symbol of improved relations ardently sought by the Moon Jae-in administration over the last three years. An existing office for inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation in the compound was renovated after the first summit between Moon and Kim Jong-un in 2018 and reopened as a liaison office later that year. However, international sanctions were not lifted due to North Korea’s reluctance to denuclearize. Pyongyang cut off all communication channels with Seoul after blaming South Korea for the dispatch of propaganda leaflets by North Korean defectors across the border.
After the elimination of the inter-Korean office, South-North relations will likely be frozen rapidly. The levelling of the office reflects Pyongyang’s determination not to cooperate with the Moon administration’s rapprochement policy. As Kim Yo-jong warned, additional provocations can follow, including the dismantling of the industrial compound and tourism facilities on Mt. Kumgang.
North Korea will likely restore armed guard posts in the Joint Security Area (JSA) and the DMZ. It removed some of its guard posts along the DMZ in a reconciliatory gesture after an inter-Korean military agreement in 2018. The North also threatened to send its own propaganda leaflets to the South. Such hostile threats hint at the possibility of a full-fledged confrontation — including localized battles and SLBM launches.
Such belligerent reactions would constitute a brazen violation of the Sept. 19 military agreement of two years ago. But they cannot address the economic hardships North Korea has suffered from international sanctions and the Covid-19 outbreak. The amicable image the North Korean leader has built on the international stages over the past also will be critically damaged. If North Korea chooses to use nuclear weapons, that will invite self-destruction.
North Korea must understand that it cannot find a breakthrough in the deadlock through blackmail or use of military force. That will only push it further into the swamp. North Korea must return to basics. At the same time, our government and military must get ready for any possible provocations.