[News analysis] Inter-Korean relations reach a critical point as N. Korea cuts all communication lines

Posted on : 2020-06-10 16:44 KST Modified on : 2020-06-10 17:02 KST
Seoul needs to respond quickly and effectively to prevent further escalation
A Korean Central Television broadcast from North Korea announcing the cutting of all communication lines with South Korea starting June 9 at noon
A Korean Central Television broadcast from North Korea announcing the cutting of all communication lines with South Korea starting June 9 at noon

Inter-Korean relations are in danger of lapsing to the state they were in before the Panmunjom Declaration of Apr. 27, 2018. With North Korea declaring on June 9 that “the work towards the South should thoroughly turn into the one against an enemy,” the risk of the situation escalating beyond a suspension of interchange into military conflict and clashes cannot be ruled out. At the same time, the extent and course of changes to inter-Korean relations could vary depending on what additional measures Pyongyang takes and how Seoul responds.

A few aspects should be noted in North Korea’s activities between a June 4 statement by Kim Yo-jong, first deputy director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which takes issue with the launches of anti-North propaganda balloons over the inter-Korean border by groups of North Korean defectors, and a Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) report published on June 9 in the Rodong Sinmun under the title “KCNA Report on Cutting off All North-South Communication Lines.”

Tone of statement indicates frustration with Moon admin. beyond balloon issue

To begin with, the statement described the balloon launches as “hurt[ing] the dignity of our supreme leadership and mock[ing] the sacred mental core of all our people.” Second, it referred to the recent balloon launches as having “driven the inter-Korean relations into a catastrophe” and held authorities in Seoul responsible, accusing them of having “connived at the hostile acts against the DPRK by the riff-raff.” The “report” on June 9 made no attempt to conceal the eruption of frustration with the Moon Jae-in administration’s actions, stating that Pyongyang “still [has] lots of accounts to settle” with it -- an indication that the balloons are not the only issue.

Third, Kim Yo-jong has taken center stage as the official responsible for overseeing “work with the South,” joined by WPK Vice Chairman Kim Yong-chol, who was deeply involved in inter-Korean and North Korea-US summits in 2018-2019 as a representative of leader Kim Jong-un. Fourth, everything from the statement by Kim Yo-jong on June 4 to the “KCNA report” on June 9 received front-page coverage in the Rodong Sinmun. As the official newspaper of the WPK Central Committee, the Rodong Sinmun is seen as representing Pyongyang’s official views and is considered required reading for North Koreans. This offers evidence that internal demand is also a factor in the current situation, in addition to the aims of pressuring or adopting measures against the South.

With Pyongyang reporting in the Rodong Sinmun on the official decision of a “review meeting of the work of the departments for affairs with the south,” its measures could be seen as having gone beyond mere rhetoric to preparations for action. The announcement of plans to “completely cut off [. . .] the hotline between the office building of the Central Committee of the WPK and the Chongwadae [Blue House]” shows that the last safety valve in inter-Korean relations is now in peril.

But the fact that Kim Jong-un has yet to take any direct action himself suggests the window of opportunity is not fully closed. The key factors will be the tenor, direction, and speed of the response from Moon Jae-in and his administration.

The distribution of leaflets in North Korea is not something new. North Korea itself noted in a June 5 statement credited to a United Front Department spokesperson that “[propaganda] balloons were launched 10 times last year and three times this year.” So why has it become such an issue this time? There are two reasons. First, the balloons are a violation of the Panmunjom Declaration, which included an agreement to “stop all the hostile acts including the [. . .] launching of propaganda leaflets.” The second has to do with fear of the novel coronavirus spreading. With its transition on Jan. 28 to a “national emergency system” to combat the disease, North Korea closed its borders and implemented disease control guidelines for officially imported items, including leaving them in place for 10 days and disinfecting them three times, once every 24 hours for a four-day period.

N. Korea may view balloons as way to introduce coronavirus

Matters of collection and disease prevention are even more stringent when it comes to leaflets launched in balloons from South Korea. Also, in early March a message referring to the “pursuit of a project to spread the coronavirus in North Korea” and the “purchasing of items previously used by coronavirus patients” was posted on and then deleted from an anonymous online community used by North Korean defectors. The recent decision may have been an eruption not only of displeasure over South Korea having failed to deal with the balloon launches in the more than two years since the Panmunjom Declaration, but also fear that the balloons are being used as a vector to introduce the virus from outside. This appears to be what the United Front Department statement was referring to with its reference to being “exhausted” by the “nonstop disposal of dirty rubbish from the south side.”

Signs also suggest that North Korean authorities are hoping to translate their hard line against Seoul on the balloon issue into momentum for a push to establish social order and promote its “frontal breakthrough campaign” based on “self-reliance.” An example can be found in another front-page article from the June 9 edition of the Rodong Sinmun, which referred to protest rallies by demonstrators holding signs reading “death to defector trash” and construction workers for Pyongyang General Hospital “intensifying their passionate all-night campaign with a sense of burning hostility.”

With North Korea reporting the discussion of “phased plans for the work against the enemy,” the future measures to follow its discontinuation of all inter-Korean communication lines on June 9 already appear to be in the cards. The first target of follow-up measures is very likely to be the Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office at Kaesong, from which the United Front Department said North Korea would “definitely withdraw.” The statement by Kim Yo-jong listed possible measures as the “complete withdrawal of the already desolate Kaesong Industrial Park,” the “shutdown of the north-south joint liaison office,” and the “scrapping of the north-south agreement in military field.”

S. Korea needs to enforce Panmunjom Declaration

In its June 9 “KCNA report,” North Korea said that “there is no need to sit face to face with the south Korean authorities and there is no issue to discuss with them,“ while the June 5 United Front Department statement warned, “[E]ven though we start things that can be annoyance to the south in the area bordering it, it will be left with no words until the bill [to stop balloon launches] is adopted and put into effect.”

A former senior South Korean official said, “The administration needs to respond in a resolute and principled manner to the balloon launches toward North Korea in the interest of enforcing the Panmunjom Declaration, and it needs to speed up related legislation.”

“In the end, it’s going to have to make a decision that increases the autonomy of inter-Korean relations, which have been tied up by the sanctions on North Korea,” the former official said.

A senior official in the area of foreign affairs and national security warned, “The outpouring of discontent from the North could spread beyond the South to the US. This is a time that calls for decisive action from the president.” The clock may already be ticking on a time bomb that threatens to plunge the Korean Peninsula political situation into chaos.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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