What a difference two years makes. The spring and summer of 2018 saw an extraordinary rapprochement between the two Koreas, as their leaders held successive face-to-face meetings, culminating in a landmark visit by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang. The flurry of diplomacy produced a number of joint declarations, agreements, hotlines and other confidence-building measures, including an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, just 6 miles into North Korean territory from the Demilitarized Zone. It was the first full-time communication channel and served as a de facto embassy between the two sides, which are technically still at war having not signed a peace agreement after the Korean War ended in 1953.
Much of the progress of the past two years came crashing down this week when North Korea used controlled explosives to destroy the liaison building, which had been largely unused since January due to the coronavirus pandemic. The blast, powerful enough to shatter windows of nearby buildings, was clearly designed to send a message.
“The decision to demolish the liaison center is significant in the sense that it was done dramatically, and with finality,” Frank Aum, senior expert on North Korea at the United States Institute of Peace, said in an email. Pyongyang could have simply mothballed the building, he added, but the fact that it instead chose a path of no return “certainly suggests there are more provocations coming down the pike.”
The move comes amid renewed efforts by the North to escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula. On June 8, Pyongyang cut off all communication lines with the South and announced that it would start treating its neighbor as an “enemy.” The supposed reason for its anger is a South Korean campaign, largely run by activists and defectors from the North, to send propaganda leaflets across the border via hydrogen balloons.
The leaflets, which often describe Kim as a cartoonish dictator squandering his country’s resources on nuclear weapons, are a genuine irritant for a regime that views information control as paramount to its survival. Pyongyang claims the campaign violates a 2018 agreement between Moon and Kim to halt their respective propaganda efforts. In an effort to preserve good relations, South Korea has promised a thorough crackdown on those responsible, introducing a law to ban the leaflets and even suing some of the activists.
The fact that those efforts did little to mollify North Korea suggests that ultimately, Kim is seizing on the leaflets to manufacture a crisis. He has been dissatisfied with the diplomatic process ever since his failed Hanoi summit with President Donald Trump in February 2019, which collapsed without a hoped-for deal to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for easing economic sanctions.
“I don’t think it’s surprising to see North Korea taking actions that demonstrate its frustration with the current situation,” Aum said in a recent interview. “Pretty much since Hanoi, they haven’t been able to achieve what they want in terms of sanctions relief, in terms of some of the things that they consider aspects of a hostile U.S. policy.” He pointed to Seoul’s recent purchases of American-made military hardware like the RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drones, which are equipped with powerful radar and surveillance equipment, as an irritant for the North.
“The decision to demolish the liaison center is significant in the sense that it was done dramatically, and with finality,” suggesting that “there are more provocations coming.”
Moon, who has staked his presidency on a policy of engagement with North Korea, has tried to keep cross-border diplomacy alive through various proposals to increase humanitarian aid and tourism exchanges. On Monday, Seoul proposed sending two senior officials to Pyongyang for talks. The North, which has long made clear that its priority is major sanctions relief, rejected what it called the “tactless and sinister proposal” and instead proceeded to blow up the liaison office. It also announced it would redeploy troops to frontline areas that were demilitarized two years ago, including Kaesong and Mount Kumgang, both of which had previously hosted joint economic projects designed to boost inter-Korean cooperation.
The public face of North Korea’s bellicosity is Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong. Much of the harsh rhetoric directed toward Seoul in state media has been attributed to her, leading many analysts to suspect that she is being positioned as a potential stand-in or even a successor to her 36-year-old brother, who is overweight and a heavy smoker, with a history of health problems. He went missing from public view for several weeks recently, only to reemerge last month, leading to swirling rumors that he had suffered a medical emergency. Or it could simply be that Kim Yo Jong is serving as attack dog so that her brother can easily step back into the role of peacemaker should tensions subside in the future.
For now, though, the Kim regime’s hostility seems aimed at trying to stay in the headlines and force more concessions. Its harsh criticism of Moon, whom Kim Yo Jong has mocked as a flunky of the Americans, may also be an effort to capitalize on tensions between the United States and South Korea due to Trump’s demands that the Moon administration pay billions of dollars more to support U.S. military bases in South Korea. North Korea is “always looking for ways to break up the Washington-Seoul alliance,” David Maxwell and Matthew Ha, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote recently. “A violent act that will leave some calling for retaliatory action and others looking to find ways to calm Pyongyang down is a great way to do that.”
Moon, who took office in 2017, has certainly adopted one of the most accommodationist stances toward the North of any South Korean president in recent memory. But he is still unlikely to do anything that would potentially undermine relations with the U.S., particularly as he enters the final stretch of his single 5-year term. And nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington will probably remain stalled at least until November, as Trump campaigns for reelection with cascading domestic crises on his hands.
With diplomacy in a holding pattern, then, Pyongyang looks set to continue ratcheting up tensions. A return to testing nuclear weapons or intercontinental ballistic missiles seems improbable, as that would provoke the ire of North Korean allies like China and Russia, whose assistance is all the more critical as Pyongyang grapples with the fallout of COVID-19. Instead, a test of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, or more artillery drills and short-range projectile launches, could be in the offing.
North Korea also has a long history of bloody provocations against the South. In 2010, during a time of heightened tensions on the peninsula, it sank a South Korean naval ship with a torpedo, killing 46 sailors. That same year, it shelled a South Korean island near a disputed maritime border, killing four people—including two civilians—and injuring at least 18 more. While most analysts see such large-scale attacks as unlikely in the current climate, the North has always been willing to take extraordinary risks to achieve its objectives. Alternatively, it could try a lower-grade attack along the lines of a 2015 incident, in which Seoul accused North Korean soldiers of sneaking over to its side of the border and placing land mines near a South Korean guard post, causing two soldiers to lose their limbs.
North Korean state media has also ramped up threats in recent weeks against defectors in the South, threatening to “force the betrayers and human scum to pay the dearest price for their crimes.” Given Pyongyang’s track record of carrying out assassinations on foreign soil—most notably using a powerful nerve agent to kill Kim’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, at a crowded airport terminal in Malaysia in 2017—it could try similar tactics against defectors. South Korean authorities claimed to have intercepted at least one such attempt in 2011 to kill Park Sang-hak, a prominent defector and activist who was involved in the recent propaganda leaflet campaign.
Looking ahead, much will depend on how Moon responds to the North’s saber-rattling. The Defense Ministry in Seoul promised the North will “certainly pay the price” should it follow through on threats of military action. But Moon has invested tremendous amounts of political capital into a policy of inter-Korean détente and peacebuilding. He could still try to find ways to reconcile with the North, even as his dreams of a durable peace seem to be collapsing—literally and figuratively—before his eyes.
Elliot Waldman is an associate editor of World Politics Review.