June 16, 2020

KOREAN PENINSULA: Pyongyang returns to form with new provocations

BY Tobias Harris

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( 5 mins)
  • North Korea has cut off communication with South Korea and has threatened to break the 2018 inter-Korean agreements that once promised a new era of cooperation on the Korean Peninsula.
  • This pattern of provocation in a US election year is familiar, although the timing may also reflect domestic instability in North Korea due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Pyongyang has stopped short of testing nuclear weapons or long-range missiles, but even this form of provocation would not necessarily mean a return to the war scare of 2017.

North Korea detonated an inter-Korean liaison office in the border town of Kaesong on Tuesday, 16 June. This represents the latest sign that diplomatic overtures to North Korea by South Korea and the US – already imperiled by a stalemate in negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program – appear to be on the brink of failure after a bellicose turn in Pyongyang’s signaling to both Seoul and Washington. This shift is not unusual for North Korea, which has previously ratcheted up tensions before US elections to pressure the incumbent or the new president to offer concessions to resolve the crisis. But North Korea’s saber-rattling introduces a significant source of uncertainty at least through the US election, particularly if Pyongyang were to end the moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and longer-range missiles that has held since talks began in 2018.

While Pyongyang has warned that it would strengthen its capabilities to fend off a US attack – and sniped at Washington for interfering in inter-Korean relations – South Korea has been the main target of the recent bellicosity. After Kim Yo Jong denounced Seoul’s failures to prevent activists (including defectors from North Korea) from launching balloons carrying leaflets and other payloads across the demilitarized zone – a violation of inter-Korean agreements – on 9 June North Korea abruptly disconnected direct lines between the two governments, including at the liaison office in Kaesong, between the Blue House in Seoul and the central committee of the Korean Workers’ Party, and between the two militaries. The leafleting was a trumped-up excuse; it has occurred for years with little apparent effect on North Korea. Moreover, after Yo Jong’s threat, Moon ordered a crackdown on the practice, leading to accusations of civil liberties violations, but North Korea severed communications anyway. Subsequently, referring to South Korea as the enemy, Yo Jong, the leader’s sister who leads a propaganda office and is widely believed to be a strong candidate to succeed her brother, warned that the military could be involved in the next step of punishing the south; this could mean an end to the military agreement whereby both governments agreed to pull back conventional forces as part of a broader confidence-building process.

Kim Yo Jong’s role in communicating these threats to South Korea – coming after months in which her brother has been barely visible in public – suggests that domestic factors could be playing an important role in the timing and character of North Korea’s provocations. Given questions about Jong Un’s viability, Yo Jong could be cementing her status as the most likely successor. This campaign, meanwhile, could be unfolding against the backdrop of economic fallout linked to the Covid-19 pandemic and accompanying domestic discontent. Whether or not North Korea avoided any cases of the disease as it has claimed, closing its border with China has disrupted food supplies and wreaked havoc with commodity prices. With little fanfare, Pyongyang floated a public bond earlier in the spring, suggesting that it needs the funds. But the bond issue could also have political dimensions, since the country’s nascent entrepreneurial class, the donju, is required to buy the bonds. Past efforts to draw savings and disposable income into government coffers – most notably the 2009 currency revaluation – have led to panic in the market economy and anger with the regime. As a result, North Korea could be pressuring Seoul in particular in a bid to secure some sanctions relief.

While these steps reveal how fragile – and opportunistic – North Korea’s response to Moon’s peace initiative was, the ultimate target of North Korea’s provocations may be the Trump administration, which, despite Trump’s relationship with Kim, has refused to offer some concessions on sanctions for modest steps on denuclearization. North Korea’s saber-rattling, even if it has thus far been directed at Seoul, could eventually lead to heightened tensions with the US. It is possible that Pyongyang could be trying to regain Trump’s attention, as the president has been otherwise preoccupied with Covid-19, mass protests, and his reelection prospects.

For the moment, North Korea’s provocations have not altered the situation. Moon has continued to appeal to Pyongyang to respect their diplomatic achievements, and the US and South Korean militaries have signaled that they are closely monitoring North Korean military movements, notwithstanding ongoing friction between Washington and Seoul over host-nation support for US forces in Korea. Meanwhile, as the destruction of the liaison office suggests, there could be a number of escalatory steps Pyongyang could take before risking a missile launch or nuclear test that would make it difficult for Trump to ignore North Korea. The most likely next step would be pulling out of inter-Korean military agreements and moving armed soldiers back into the border zone. The key question is whether they will abide by the armistice agreement, which stipulates that troops should have only sidearms, or whether they will try some other provocation.

Beyond further provocation aimed at South Korea, the most significant question is whether Pyongyang decides to test an intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile or nuclear weapon. This would not necessarily mark an immediate return to the “fire and fury” tensions of 2017, although it is unlikely that Trump would reengage diplomatically so close to the US elections. However, the US and South Korea would likely resume joint exercises in response to a major test, which could invite further provocation from Pyongyang.

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