North Korea’s Leader Overrules Military Plan to Deploy Troops at Border

By Choe Sang-Hun

A strategy of raising and de-escalating tensions has long been part of the North’s way of gaining leverage. By staying the hand of hard-liners, Kim Jong-un appeared to be leaving room for diplomacy.

A North Korean guard post in Paju near the demilitarized zone.
A North Korean guard post in Paju near the demilitarized zone.Credit...Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
Choe Sang-Hun

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has overruled his military’s plans to resume exercises and deploy more troops near the heavily armed border with South Korea, using his authority to de-escalate rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the North’s official news agency reported on Wednesday.

Switching back and forth between raising and easing tensions has long been part of the North’s way of gaining diplomatic leverage against its external foes.

The decision came after a series of actions by North Korea earlier this month that imperiled a fragile détente on the peninsula, like cutting off communications lines with the South and blowing up a joint inter-Korean liaison office. The North’s military had also drawn up “action plans” likely to raise tensions along the border and had sought Mr. Kim’s approval of them.

Mr. Kim’s move will most likely put ​at least ​a temporary brake on what appeared to be a rapid escalation of tensions in the peninsula in recent weeks. By staying the hand of hard-liners in Pyongyang, the North’s leader appeared to have left room for diplomatic negotiations.

He acted after convening the ruling Workers’ Party​’s Central Military Commission, the highest decision-making body​ on military affairs, on Tuesday and “​took ​stock of the prevailing situation and suspended the military action plans against the South,” the North’s Korean Central News Agency said​.

The news agency did not offer details on Mr. Kim’s decision, but added that the meeting, which took place through video conferencing, studied “some documents carrying the state measures for further bolstering the war deterrent of the country,” an apparent reference to the North’s earlier threat to boost its nuclear weapons capabilities.

North Korea has been expressing increasingly growing frustration with South Korea and the United States, especially since the second summit between Mr. Kim and President Trump collapsed in Vietnam in February last year.

This month, it seized upon anti-Kim leaflets sent by activists in South Korea, mostly North Korean defectors, to start reversing the détente created when Mr. Kim met with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in 2018.

Last week the North’s Korean People’s Army said it had prepared plans that would undermine the agreement between Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon. Its plans included rebuilding some military ​guard ​posts within the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas that were demolished under the Kim-Moon agreement and resuming “all kinds of regular military exercises in the areas close to the boundary.”

ImageSouth Korean army howitzers performing an annual exercise in Paju on Tuesday, near the border of North Korea.
South Korean army howitzers performing an annual exercise in Paju on Tuesday, near the border of North Korea.Credit...Ahn Young-Joon/Associated Press

On Monday, the North said it has prepared 12 million anti-South Korean leaflets and 3,000 balloons to carry them across the border, along with cigarette butts and other trash.

Most of the threats were made not in Mr. Kim’s name but orchestrated by his only sister, Kim Yo-jong, whose influence in her brother’s government has expanded in recent years. ​ Analysts have said that by placing his sister up front in North Korea’s growing confrontation with Seoul and Washington and by keeping himself out of the fray, Mr. Kim has kept ​diplomatic​ flexibility to de-escalate​.

The North’s sudden turn toward animosity with the South — and, by extension, the United States — reflected a desire to unify the country in the face of an economy further hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic and of a deepening need to push for concessions on international sanctions, the analysts said.

South Korea also moved quickly this month to placate the North, vowing to use the police to stop any attempt by the activists to send propaganda balloons to the North. The South said that the leaflets did little other than provoke the North and created trash in the South because many of the balloons never make it across the border. Seoul is also pushing to revise the domestic laws to ban the sending of such leaflets.

At the same time, South Korea expressed strong displeasure ​with the ​crude ​insults the North has hurled against its leader, Mr. Moon, and threatened retaliation if the North Korean military raised tensions. ​ Ms. Kim at one point called Mr. Moon “insane” and his speeches calling for peace on the peninsula “sickening.”

The harsh rhetoric was a switch from the warm relations between Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon that peaked in September 2018, when Mr. Kim let Mr. Moon speak before a huge North Korean audience filling a stadium in Pyongyang and the two leaders climbed Mount Paekdu, ​ raising hands together at the top of the volcanic mountain on the border with China that Koreans consider the sacred birthplace of their nation.

Mr. ​Moon, a champion of political reconciliation between the two Koreas, helped arrange Mr. Kim’s historic summit meetings with Mr. Trump​​, which elevated Mr. Kim’s global status. But North Korea has repeatedly criticized both Seoul and Washington after Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim’s diplomacy failed to ease American-led sanctions. Mr. Kim himself has so far largely stopped short of attacking Mr. Trump and Mr. Moon in person.