N. Korea’s hostile attitude expected to continue

Posted on : 2020-06-15 16:25 KST Modified on : 2020-06-15 16:56 KST
Kim Yo-jong claims her response has been “authorized” by Kim Jong-un
A North Korean village in Kaepung County, North Hwanghae Province, on June 14. (Kim Bong-gyu, staff photographer)
A North Korean village in Kaepung County, North Hwanghae Province, on June 14. (Kim Bong-gyu, staff photographer)

In a “statement” first published by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on the evening of June 13 and reprinted on page two of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper on June 14, Kim Yo-jong, first deputy director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), said, “By exercising my power authorized by the Supreme Leader [Kim Jong-un], our Party and the state, I gave an instruction to the arms of the department in charge of the affairs with enemy to decisively carry out the next action.”

Particularly notable is the reference to “my power authorized by the Supreme Leader, our Party and the state.” It is the first reference to Kim’s recent activities in terms of “work towards the South [being] thoroughly turn[ed] into the one against the enemy” in response to the leaflet distribution issue as having been “authorized” by Kim Jong-un.

“The judgment that we should force the betrayers and human scum to pay the dearest price for their crimes and the retaliatory action plans we have made on this basis have become a firm public opinion at home,” Kim said in her statement. Her claim is that the recent hard line against Seoul represents a “public opinion” far beyond the level of a decision by the United Front Department, which oversees South Korea affairs for the WPK. It is an indirect way of expressing that Kim’s “special status” and the decision to equate South Korea with the “enemy” represents a strategic determination that is neither temporary nor tactical. It reads as a warning that the hardline attitude toward Seoul could persist for some time.

For now, it remains unclear whether the change in Pyongyang’s approach is premised on Kim Jong-un discarding the strategy he has adopted in approaching the US and South Korea since 2018. The targets of the reports on protest demonstrations and various commentary pieces published for days on end by the Rodong Sinmun -- considered required reading for North Koreas –- are the “defector scum” launching the balloons and “South Korean authorities.” In a statement on June 11, Foreign Minister Ri Son-kwon said, “The secure strategic goal of the DPRK is to build up more reliable force to cope with the long-term military threats from the US,” but the US has not been a target of protests. So far, the campaign has been limited to South Korea.

Pledging to undertake a “series of retaliatory actions,” Kim warned, “Before long, a tragic scene of the useless north-south joint liaison office completely collapsed would be seen.” Her message is that the joint liaison office in Kaesong -- the closure of which was one of three measures warned of in a previous statement on June 4 (along with the total demolition of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and scrapping of an inter-Korean military agreement), and which the United Front Department declared would “definitely” be withdrawn in a spokespersons’s statement on June 5 -- will be the first target of additional retaliatory actions. The possibility of retaliatory actions by the North, such as the removal of the Kaesong office’s signboard, being carried out on the 20th anniversary of the June 15 Inter-Korean Joint Declaration of 2000 cannot be ruled out.

Most significantly, Kim Yo-jong sternly warned of military retaliation, declaring that the “right to take the next action against the enemy will be entrusted to the General Staff of our army.” Some possibilities that cannot be ruled out as possible responses to additional balloon launches include the restoration of previously dismantled guard posts in the DMZ or military clashes near the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea, which represents a blind spot in terms of the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953.

Many analysts said that for all the deep distrust and disappointment toward the South among North Korean authorities, the matter of “internal demand” has also played a large part in their recent hard line toward Seoul. The argument is that Pyongyang senses an urgent need to attribute its lack of diplomatic and economic achievements to an “outside enemy,” with the novel coronavirus pandemic coming on the heels of the collapse of the second North Korea-US summit in Hanoi in February 2019. With authorities effectively narrating the recent events in real time toward the Rodong Sinmun, they will need “results” to share with the public if they hope to alter their hard line toward South Korea.

Averting the catastrophic consequences for inter-Korean relations that North Korea has hinted at will require efforts by Seoul to treat both the symptoms and the root cause. To begin with, it will need to first treat the symptoms by attending quickly to the balloon launches. With the United Front Department warning of retaliatory action “until the bill [to prevent launches] is adopted and put into effect” in a June 5 statement, many are urging the swift adoption of legislation in addition to an end to the balloon launches.

US political situation offers dims prospects for solution in near future

Observers are also calling for a treatment of the root cause by obtaining the US’ cooperation on exemptions to sanctions for inter-Korean cooperation efforts to increase autonomy in inter-Korean relations. But that approach is unlikely to produce much in the way of results due to the intensifying conflict between US and China and the US’ domestic political situation, which is bogged down with the imminent presidential election, the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, and the COVID-19 pandemic. This explains why many in and around the government are complaining that there “doesn’t appear to be any way forward.” Like Alexander the Great slicing the Gordian knot with his sword, it’s a moment that desperately calls for decisive action by South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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

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