North Korea has said it will send troops into areas near the border with South Korea, a move that would significantly raise tensions a day after Pyongyang blew up an office set up to foster better ties between the two countries.
The redeployment of troops to the Mount Kumgang resort on the east coast and the Kaesong industrial complex, located just north of the border, would mark another step towards ripping up agreements designed to reduce the potential for conflict along the demilitarised zone [DMZ], which has divided the peninsula since the end of the 1950-53 Korean war.
A spokesman for the general staff of the [North] Korean People’s Army said troops would be sent to “resume all kinds of regular military exercises” at the two sites. Both projects have been closed for several years, but were once symbols of inter-Korean unity that many hoped would reopen as cross-border ties improved.
North Korea said it would also resume military exercises and re-establish guard posts in border areas, and open front-line sites to enable it to send propaganda leaflets across the border into South Korea.
Those steps would effectively nullify the Panmunjom declaration, signed in September 2018 by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and the south Korean president, Moon Jae-in, in which they agreed to cease “all hostile acts” in the area.
In response, South Korea’s presidential Blue House said Wednesday that it would “no longer tolerate” North Korean provocations, although it was not clear what, if any, action Seoul was planning.
Pyongyang claims it has been forced to take action by Seoul’s failure to prevent defector groups from flying anti-Kim propaganda leaflets across the DMZ.
On Tuesday, the state KCNA news agency said the destruction of the liaison office – which served as a de facto embassy for the two Koreas – was a “reflection of the zeal our enraged people” felt towards defector groups that send propaganda leaflets into the North.
Responding to the building’s destruction, a spokesman for the US state department said Washington “fully supports” Seoul’s efforts on inter-Korean relations and urged Pyongyang to “refrain from further counterproductive actions”.
The European Union condemned North Korea’s decision to blow up the building as “unacceptable”. A spokesman said the regime’s actions “raise tensions, destabilise the situation and undermine efforts towards a diplomatic solution on the Korean peninsula”.
South Korea’s defence ministry has urged North Korea to abide by the 2018 agreement. The deputy national security advisor, Kim You-geun, said the destruction of the liaison building “broke the expectations of all people who hope for the development of inter-Korean relations and lasting peace on the peninsula”.
Kim Yo-jong, Kim’s influential younger sister, rejected a South Korean offer to send special envoys to Pyongyang in an attempt to defuse the situation, calling the proposal “tactless and sinister”, according to KCNA.
Moon “greatly favours sending special envoys for ‘tiding over crises’ and raises preposterous proposals frequently, but he has to clearly understand that such a trick will no longer work on us,” KCNA quoted her as saying.
While the recent rise in tensions is a setback for Moon, a liberal who favours engagement with the North, analysts believe the regime is manufacturing animosity towards the South to send a message to the US.
“North Korea’s sabre-rattling, even if it has so far been directed at Seoul, could eventually lead to heightened tensions with the US,” Tobias Harris and Victor Cha at Teneo Intelligence, a Washington-based consultancy, said in a note.
“It is possible that Pyongyang could be trying to regain Donald Trump’s attention, as the president has been otherwise preoccupied with Covid-19, mass protests, and his reelection prospects.”
Talks on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes have stalled since a February 2019 summit between Kim Jong-un and Trump ended in failure after the leaders disagreed on what steps the North should take in return for sanctions relief.
Daniel Russel, the top US diplomat for East Asia until early in Trump’s administration, said: “Ramping up pressure through escalating provocations is how Kim makes the point that without sanctions relief, sooner or later he will also blow up Trump’s claim to have ‘ended the threat’ from North Korea.”
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the destruction of the liaison office was “an act of political violence, symbolising that years of inter-Korean engagement have been reduced to rubble”.
“If Pyongyang creates this much drama ostensibly over leaflets, imagine what it has planned in response to US-South Korea combined exercises this summer.”