world politics

North Korea Is Matching Its War of Words With Plans to Re-Militarize Border Zones

The North is continuing its recent streak of provocations, warning the South that intransigence could lead to “setting Seoul on fire.”
June 17, 2020, 1:54pm
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Following its surprise destruction of an inter-Korean liaison office on Tuesday, North Korea on Wednesday said it would resume military exercises and begin to reinstall guard posts in previously demilitarized areas along its border with the South.

The General Staff of the Korean People’s Army said through the state Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) that troops will be redeployed at the Diamond Mountain resort and the Kaesong industrial complex, both demilitarized under inter-Korean agreements in an effort to reduce tensions across the world’s most heavily armed border.

The deterioration of ties between the two countries has been so rapid and pronounced, in fact, it may claim the career of South Korea’s Minister of Unification, Kim Yeon-chul, who today offered to resign over the breakdown.

Kaesong was home to the liaison office blown up by the North on Tuesday—itself part of the effort to minimize the risk of clashes between the two countries—an act KCNA characterized as “the toughest retaliatory offensive against the enemy.”

In response, South Korea cut off all electricity to the Kaesong industrial complex, the South Korean Unification Ministry confirmed. South Korean Vice Unification Minister Suh Ho also pointed out that North Korea had violated the Agreement Concerning the Establishment and Operation of South-North Liaison Offices.

Meantime, Kim You-geun, the South’s deputy national security advisor, said the North “broke the expectations of all people who hope for the development of inter-Korean relations and lasting peace on the peninsula.”

But the North has sought to lay the blame for the liaison office’s demolition at the feet of the South Korean government, faulting it for failing to stop activist groups from scattering anti-North leaflets over the border—a practice that has gone on for years without typically drawing such a strong response.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the North’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, had previously agreed to halt all state-sanctioned leaflet campaigns, but there was no explicit agreement to ban civilian leafleting.

Even so, Jang Kum Chol, director of the inter-Korean affairs branch of North Korea’s ruling party, said South Korea had “reduced the north-south declaration and agreement made under the eyes of the whole nation and the world into a scrap paper.” In announcing the redeployment of troops to demilitarized areas, the North also vowed to carry out a leafleting campaign of its own.

On Wednesday, Kim Yo Jong continued the tough talk, accusing Moon of being caught in the “noose of U.S. flunkeyism,” and warning of escalating tensions, with the South Korean government dismissing her comments as “rude and irrational.”

Seoul’s Defense Ministry, on the other hand, said that the North would pay for future military actions.

Since the start of the latest falling-out, the North has continued to escalate the level of provocation, first severing all communications with the South, then lashing out at the U.S. over the lack of results from diplomatic engagement, then blowing up the liaison office. A commentary by KCNA on Wednesday said that the ongoing war of words could lead to “the story of setting Seoul on fire.”

But experts who spoke with VICE News said that it appeared the North orchestrated the spat all on its own to satisfy its political agenda.

“It was not just about propaganda flyers. The North’s frustration from the economic sanctions spilled over,” Kim Dong-yub, a director of research at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said in an interview.

He added that the North had already planned to take a confrontational approach after seeing no improvements in its economy.

Still, Kim expressed a measure of concern over the potential risk of clashes on Facebook.

“The North is planning to send leaflets to South Korea, and that provocation per se is not a big deal,” he wrote. “But we have to deal with North Koreans coming close to the border for leafleting. That can cause military conflicts.”

Andray Abrahamian, another North Korea expert at George Mason University Korea, said that the North also wanted to paint Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un, as a “tough leader” in the eyes of its public. Kim Yo Jong was previously associated with a period of rapprochement, which the North now apparently regards as a failure.

Abrahamian predicted that the North’s confrontational approach would last until the North was satisfied it had achieved the desired effect domestically of distracting from a faltering economy, and shoring up the power of the Kim family.

“It looks to me as if they have given up on engagement and don’t think they will get anything from the current South Korean administration in the near future,” said Abrahamian.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.