Blowing up diplomacy on the Korean peninsula
22 Jun 2020|

In a stunning dismissal of the value of inter-Korean diplomacy, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, ordered the destruction of the joint liaison office in Kaesong near the border with South Korea. It wasn’t just a decision to hold off on further contact with the South—she had the building blown up. Diplomacy seems to be dead in the eyes of the Kim regime.

This move follows a long-running leafleting campaign by North Korean defectors based in the South. North Korea appears to be using that campaign as an excuse for a series of retaliatory actions designed to pressure Seoul into making concessions. The risk is that each provocation could increase the chances of inadvertent escalation across the demilitarised zone.

The official North Korean news agency, KCNA, released several statements following the destruction of the liaison office. They suggest that the regime plans on deploying the Korean People’s Army into the Mt Kumgang resort area and the Kaesong industrial zone, as well as ‘opening many areas in the ground front and southwestern waters’. Any harassment at sea, along the Northern Limit Line, would increase the potential for naval conflict.

The statements indicate that destroying the liaison office won’t be the last provocative move. Reporting suggests that the Korean People’s Army will reinstall guard posts and resume military exercises in frontline areas, reversing progress in North–South diplomacy made over the past two years. Frontline units, such as artillery, will reinforce formations close to the DMZ, increasing the threat to South Korean territory from which the balloon-borne leafleting campaign was launched. North Korea has rejected an offer from Moon Jae-in’s government in Seoul to restart talks.

The prospects for an easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula are now dramatically diminished.

Attempts at diplomacy by the United States have also clearly been rejected by Pyongyang. The North Korean foreign minister, Ri Son-gwon, has ruled out further negotiations with President Donald Trump, noting, ‘Pyongyang will never again provide the US chief executive with another package to be used for achievements without receiving any returns.’

Instead, North Korea is apparently focused on ramping up the production of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons following a meeting of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, chaired by Kim Jong-un. He said the country ‘should mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, the power and reliability of which have already been proven to the full, to give a spur to the efforts for deploying them for action’. In December, Kim announced that North Korea was no longer bound by its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, and suggested that a new strategic weapon would be unveiled.

So, don’t expect any new moves towards a summit between Trump and Kim, especially in a combustible atmosphere charged by North Korean provocations along the DMZ with South Korea. Instead, the prospect of additional long-range missile tests, and the potential for a new nuclear test, have to be taken seriously.

What is perhaps most interesting about this latest crisis is the role of Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong. After Kim Jong-un disappeared for some weeks in April, likely either isolating himself from Covid-19 or suffering health issues, his sister emerged as increasingly influential in the regime. Now she is apparently moving to strengthen her influence and visibility by building up her ‘revolutionary achievements’, such as provocations against South Korea, as a way to enhance her authority in a male-dominated hierarchy.

Kim Yo-jong is extremely militant in her language and threats against South Korea, a posture likely to be approved by her brother, and which reinforces the message that the Kim line is firmly in charge of the state. South Korea’s Daily NK newspaper suggests she still feels sufficiently insecure in her powerbase and must demonstrate toughness and political acumen to elders within the regime, including the military leadership of the North Korean People’s Army.

The North Korean actions also tie into the impact of Covid-19 on the hermit kingdom, with the requirement to close the border between North Korea and China accentuating the economic misery faced by the North Korean people, who are already suffering the effects of sanctions. By bullying South Korea, Pyongyang wants to see Seoul split with Washington and the lifting of sanctions. Such an achievement would be a huge coup for Kim Yo-jong and would strengthen her influence greatly.

Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Washington think tank the Center for the National Interest, argues that North Korea’s actions ‘have zero to do with leaflets sent over the DMZ but [rather] the anger it feels towards the Moon government for not delivering bigger incentives in recent years of détente’. The regime in Pyongyang felt that both summits between Trump and Kim, and inter-Korean diplomacy, would by now have brought real concessions to North Korea and at least the lifting of sanctions.

Although inter-Korean engagement has brought benefits such as a reduction of military forces along both sides of the DMZ, sanctions remain in place and neither South Korea nor the US will lift them unless North Korea moves to comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation, an outcome unacceptable to Pyongyang.

So, Kim Yo-jong, seeking to strengthen her revolutionary political credentials, with the support of Kim Jong-un, plans to coerce the South into lifting sanctions and looks set on using military provocations to prove her ability to lead. In one of the most heavily militarised locations on earth, that’s a bold and dangerous path to take, because Seoul is unlikely to buckle.

When that becomes apparent to Kim Yo-jong, what might she do next?