Ominous signs on the Korean Peninsula

Relations between North and South Korea have taken a sudden turn for the worse. First, Pyongyang cut off all lines of communication with Seoul. Then it blew up an inter-Korean liaison office. And the military has vowed to deploy troops near the demilitarized zone and resume drills. This sudden chill is raising the question: Are the two Koreas heading for a military clash?

Blowing up a symbol of reconciliation

On June 16, the North blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in the border city of Kaesong. The four-story building had only been open for two years. The first-of-its-kind office was the fruit of a summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and had cost South Korea $13.9 million to renovate. Officials from both sides were stationed there so they could talk at any time.

The inter-Korean liaison office opened just two years ago.

If the office was primarily symbolic, so too was its destruction, telling the world that the North has broken away from relations with the South.

The following day, North Korea revealed it would deploy troops in the Kaesong industrial complex and the Mount Kumgang tourist resort, both symbols of inter-Korean cooperation. The military also says it will resume drills in border areas, including the naval front in the Yellow Sea.

The trigger

North Korea’s leadership has been angered by a leaflet drop organized by defectors. Balloons traveled across the border carrying leaflets critical of Pyongyang, as well as US dollar bills and memory cards containing sensitive information.

North Korea says Seoul is responsible for failing to stop the leaflets. Seoul says it would need to introduce legislation to ban such a campaign.

Defectors to the South sent leaflets to the North attached to balloons in May.

Stalled Inter-Korean relations

South Korean President Moon has said one of his priorities is to improve ties with the North. He has met with Kim three times, and called on the North to engage in dialogue on every occasion. In May, in a speech marking the third anniversary of his inauguration, he said he wanted to promote inter-Korean cooperation projects, calling the two Koreas "a single community of life."

He took a similar tone in a video message created to mark the 20th anniversary of the first-ever inter-Korean summit. North Korea blew up the liaison office the following day.

When Seoul proposed sending a special envoy to the North to calm tensions, Pyongyang called the idea "tactless and sinister."

South Korea’s presidential office hit back, saying the government will no longer tolerate “unreasonable words and acts" from Pyongyang. South Korean media say that’s the most strongly worded statement the Moon administration has ever issued against the North.
With relations hitting rock bottom, South Korea’s Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul offered his resignation.

North Korea's intentions

North Korea’s reaction may have been triggered by the leaflet drop, but the anger was already brewing. Leaders in Pyongyang are thought to be growing frustrated at the lack of progress in cooperative projects agreed between the two Koreas. The leaders confirmed at a summit in 2018 they would proceed with reconnecting roads and railways. But US and UN sanctions on North Korea have made that difficult.

Summit meeting between North and South Korean leaders in April 2018

North Korea may also have wanted Seoul to take a more proactive role as a conduit to Washington, and help to revive the stalled denuclearization talks.

It’s also possible that the regime in Pyongyang sees this aggression as a way to assert authority at a time when the economy is in worse shape than ever, since the country closed its border with China due to fears about the coronavirus.

The rise of Kim Yo Jong

North Korea’s public face throughout these tensions with South Korea has been Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Yo Jong.

The deployment of troops to border areas came after Kim Yo Jong said she would entrust "the next step" to the army's General Staff. Until now, only Kim Jong Un has been able to give instructions to the military. South Korean media are speculating that his sister may be in the process of taking control of the military.

Kim Yo Jong has become more prominent recently.

Will things get worse?

North Korean media said the demolition of the liaison office was an “ominous prelude to total catastrophe of North-South relations."

While the South Korean leadership is pushing for calm, the defectors say they are planning another leaflet drop on June 25th, the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. The government and authorities in the border areas say they will ensure that doesn’t happen. But critics inside and outside South Korea say preventing it would violate the group’s freedom of expression.

Leaders in Seoul are finding themselves ever more boxed in. The fear is that it won’t take much for this sudden chill in relations to become something more serious.