[News analysis] Why did N. Korea demolish the Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office?

Posted on : 2020-06-17 15:04 KST Modified on : 2020-06-17 16:59 KST
Analyzing events leading up to the demolition may help infer Pyongyang’s motives
North Korea demolishes the Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office in Kaesong on June 16. (provided by the Ministry of National Defense)
North Korea demolishes the Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office in Kaesong on June 16. (provided by the Ministry of National Defense)

North Korea blew up the Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office in Kaesong on June 16, destroying a symbolic achievement of the Panmunjom Declaration made by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Apr. 27, 2018. The move came three days after Kim Yo-jong, deputy director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), warned that “before long, a tragic scene of the useless North-South joint liaison office completely collapsed would be seen.”

So far, North Korea has taken two actions against the South since Kim Yo-jong took issue with balloons filled with propaganda leaflets launched across the border in a statement on June 4. The first action was severing all direct lines of communication between the two sides on June 9, and the second was the demolition of the liaison office at 2:50 pm on June 16.

The big question is how far North Korea will go in its ferocious release of anger over the balloons launches by defectors, whom the North Korean state-run media call “human scum.” The North Korea’s media say that these leaflets insult its “supreme dignity,” referring to leader Kim Jong-un, as well as the populace as a whole.

Hints for a possible answer must be gleaned from the official statements that the North has released since June 4. In a statement on that day, Kim Yo-jong listed three actions: completely closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex, demolishing the Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office, and scrapping the Sept. 19 Comprehensive Military Agreement.

“The right to [take] the next action against the enemy will be entrusted to the general staff of our army,” Kim said in a statement on June 13. In an “open report” published early in the morning on June 16, the general staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) said that it had “accepted [. . .] an opinion [. . .] for taking measures to make the army advance again into the zones that had been demilitarized under the North-South agreement, turn the front line into a fortress, and further heighten the military vigilance against the south” and on “cooperating with our people from all walks of life in their large-scale leaflet scattering struggle against the enemy.”

“We will map out the military action plans for rapidly carrying out the said opinions to receive approval from the [Party’s] Central Military Commission,” the general staff added.

Third measure likely to be North Korean people’s “large-scale leaflet scattering struggle”

The statement suggests that North Korea’s third measure against the South is likely to be the North Korea’s people’s “large-scale leaflet scattering struggle against the enemy.” The problem is what happens after that. It’s still unclear whether North Korea is willing to let its belligerence to lead to a military clash with South Korea. The report by the KPA general staff only promised to “heighten the military vigilance” against the South without saying anything about a military reprisal.

What the North initially said in a statement by the spokesperson of the WPK United Front Department on June 5 is that “even though we start things that can be [an] annoyance to the South in the area bordering it, it will be left with no words until the bill [banning the launch of leaflets] is adopted and put into effect.” It’s not certain whether or not North Korea’s plans to gradually take measures against the enemy (mentioned in a KCNA report on June 9) fall within that scope.

Thus, the ultimate goal of North Korea’s recent harsh remarks and actions against the South is ambiguous. Despite taking “destructive” measures such as blowing up the joint liaison office, the North has not declared the end of agreements reached by Moon and Kim, including the Panmunjom Declaration.

Demolition a way to calm public anger toward South?

Another notable aspect of North Korea’s recent behavior is that it has two audiences in mind. One is South Korea, and the other is its own “angry public.” The state-run Rodong Sinmun, a newspaper that all North Koreans are expected to read, has taken the unusual step of thoroughly covering the story, starting with Kim Yo-jong’s statement on June 4. Kim Yo-jong said in her June 13 statement that she believes “our army [. . .] will determine something for cooling down our people’s resentment and surely carry [it out].”

On June 15, the Rodong Sinmun quoted the “angry voice” of a young worker at a coal mine in the Bukchang District, South Pyongan Province, who said, “The workers on my team want that joint liaison office or whatever it is to be blown to smithereens.” In addition, North Korea’s state-run radio and television broadcasters quickly informed the public about the demolition of the joint liaison office, at 5 pm on the afternoon of June 16. In short, the demolition of the office was both a blow against South Korea and also an outlet for “cooling down the people’s resentment.”

The North Korean media was rather vague about the demolition itself, only saying that it was carried out by the “relevant department,” without specifying that it was the KPA.

“It’s still hard to say how far North Korea will take this ‘venting of public anger’ and when it will step back to see how South Korea responds,” said a former high-ranking official.

“Inter-Korean relations stand at a very perilous crossroads. The South Korean government needs to move proactively to prevent North Korea’s actions against the South from escalating into a military clash.”

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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

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