South Korean President Moon Jae-in marked the seventieth anniversary of the start of the Korean War on Thursday, 25 June, by calling for peace with North Korea but warning that the South Korean military would respond firmly to threats from the North. Moon’s remarks come as his administration tries to revive the inter-Korean diplomatic process, which has stalled in the face of North Korean provocations, including the suspension of communications, the bombing of a liaison office, and threats to move troops into areas vacated after the 2018 inter-Korean military agreements. However, while state media reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un decided to “postpone plans for military action” against the south, the change in tone from Pyongyang likely signals North Korea’s ability to control the content and tempo of its provocations rather than a sincere desire to deescalate tensions and resume diplomacy with Seoul.
As noted previously, North Korea’s latest provocations against South Korea likely reflect internal dynamics in Pyongyang. The escalation of provocations and threats against the South enabled Kim Yo Jong, Jong Un’s sister who is increasingly viewed as a plausible successor, to forge a reputation as a hardliner. Jong Un can then appear statesmanlike and responsible for keeping hardliners under control. A similar dynamic prevailed in 2017, when the North Korean military threatened to “envelop” Guam with missiles before Kim publicly called it off. It is therefore unlikely that Kim intended his decision to postpone military action as a conciliatory gesture.
To the extent that Pyongyang is interested in diplomacy in the near term, it is focused largely on sanctions relief and not the large-scale resumption of peace-building talks with South Korea. The focus therefore will be less on diplomacy with the US – unless Washington were willing to consider an interim deal that suspended some of the 2017 UN Security Council sanctions on general trade with North Korea – than on pressuring South Korea to provide financial assistance and appeal to the US to approve sanctions relief. Pyongyang is likely gambling that Moon’s determination to restart the inter-Korean peace process could make coercive action that dismantles previous agreements effective and even drive a wedge between South Korea and the US.
However, while signs currently point to continuing inter-Korean tensions, it is difficult to rule out other provocations, including directly provoking the US with nuclear or long-range missile tests. Pyongyang, for example, marked the anniversary of the start of the Korean War by promising to bolster its nuclear deterrent. Kim Jong Un’s health could also remain a factor in the coming months: on Thursday, 25 June, Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono alluded to doubts about Kim’s health, although he did not provide specific information.