North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday took a step back from the escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula in recent weeks, suspending what the North described as plans for military action against the South.
The dramatic about-face came just one day before the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War.
North Korea announced that it had taken “stock of the prevailing situation and suspended the military action plans against the South” following a preliminary meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
The meeting, held via video conference, was presided over by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and attended by Ri Pyong Chol, vice chairman of the WPK Central Military Commission.
Following the announcement, the North also dismantled newly installed loudspeakers placed near the Korean Demilitarized Zone to broadcast anti-South propaganda, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification reportedly confirmed in a closed session of parliament. After the North erected the loudspeakers at the beginning of this week, the South’s Ministry of National Defense had hinted at responding by reinstalling loudspeakers of its own.
Articles lambasting the South were also removed from the North’s propaganda outlets, such as DPRK Today, Meari, and Tongil Voice. There were also no stories attacking the South on KCNA and the official state newspaper, Rodong Sinmun.
The loudspeakers had been part of a North Korean plan to blast critical messages and drop anti-South leaflets in retaliation against defectors in South Korea who have long sent anti-North leaflets across the border.
The leaflets, and South Korean government’s failure to take action against the leafleteers, prompted the hermit kingdom to sever all communication lines with South Korea earlier this month, including a number of military and diplomatic hotlines. As tensions escalated, it also blew up an inter-Korean liaison office in its border city of Kaesong, and threatened further military action against the South.
High profile politicians in South Korea, meanwhile, welcomed North Korea’s deescalation today.
Lee Nak-yeon, a former prime minister and potential presidential candidate, said on Facebook that the move “can ease tensions on the peninsula,” and took the opportunity to call for inter-Korean dialogue, as well talks involving both China and the U.S., the North and South’s firmest allies, respectively.
Lee Jae-myung, also a potential presidential candidate, and the governor of Gyeonggi province, which hugs much of the border, similarly praised the move on Facebook. “[I] Welcome the decision… and the process of creating defending peace requires patience,” he said.
The North has historically ratcheted tensions on the peninsula up and down as it sees fit in order to pursue its diplomatic ends.
Lee Shin-wha, a professor of international relations at Korea University, cautioned that Wednesday’s newly conciliatory stance was the result of a preliminary meeting, and that the outcome of the main meeting remains unclear.
Lee told VICE News that the North had made Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, the face of its recent bellicose maneuvering in order to maintain the supreme leader’s diplomatic flexibility.
“The most important thing for the North is cracking down on its people to strengthen internal integrity,” she said. “The North would think that it showed its people, in a way, how the South was damaged because of ‘faults.’”
Lee said she believed that the North was also worried that getting into a propaganda tit-for-tat with the South could backfire.
“The North seems to judge that it would get more damaged by setting up loudspeakers,” she said. “They would think it is going a bit too far.”
Thae Yong-ho, a former top North Korean diplomat who defected and was elected as a lawmaker in South Korea, agreed.
The South resuming its broadcasts of anti-North propaganda was such an undesirable outcome that the North immediately backed down when the South hinted at the plan, he wrote on Facebook.
“To North Korea, broadcasting propaganda is a magic bullet,” he wrote.
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