Kim Jong Un is treading carefully, but could put the boot in at any time. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS

North Korean staff returned to an important inter-Korean liaison office on Monday, only days after abandoning the high-profile site. The surprise return may have been a relief to South Korean officials and was the latest in a series of events following the failure of the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi last month.

The North Korean maneuver came hot on the heels of US President Donald Trump refusing to countenance new sanctions on North Korea – a decision which caused considerable confusion in the United States.

After announcing their departure from the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong on Friday, North Korea changed course on Monday, sending staff back to the location, which is just north of the Demilitarized Zone, according to Yonhap news agency, which cited official sources.

North Korean officials on Friday told their South Korean counterparts that they were following orders from a higher authority. One expert had told Asia Times on the day that the North Korean move was “easily reversible.” That proved to be true on Monday.

Even so, only half the North Korean officials returned, and it is not clear whether or when the full complement will return to the site.

Confusion in the US

The inter-Korean liaison office, which opened last September, is occupied by government officials from both Koreas, which lack any diplomatic relations. As such, it is arguably the most important fruit of last year’s inter-Korean engagement process.

The move followed confusion in the United States on Friday – US sanctions were announced on two Chinese companies whose ships had refueled North Korean ships on the high seas and Trump tweeted there would be no new sanctions against North Korea.

It later emerged that Trump was not referring to the sanctions on the two Chinese firms, but to wider, additional sanctions the administration was mulling against North Korea. In a partial explanation, the White House spokesperson noted that Trump liked Kim Jong Un.

Though many reports and pundits accused the president of reversing course, Trump – if not all members of his administration – appeared to be consistent.

Speaking at a press conference immediately after his failed summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi last month, Trump clearly stated he did not favor new sanctions on Pyongyang. 

Symmetrical diplomacy?

Even so, Trump’s hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton has been speaking widely on North Korean policy since the Hanoi summit. Whether the conciliatory president and the hardline national security advisor are at odds over policy, or whether the two represent a “stick-and-carrot” negotiating team, is unclear.

That lack of clarity appears to perplex even the North Korean leader himself, who – Asia Times has learned – asked Bolton, in an unscripted moment during the first North  Korea-US summit in Singapore last June, whether he was prepared to do business with Kim. An apparently surprised Bolton responded that he follows his president’s lead.

Hence, the North Korean return – or partial return – to Kaesong could be the latest move in a long and complex diplomatic mating dance.

One expert cited recent North Korean moves – indignant post-Hanoi press conferences, activity at missile launch sites, criticism of Seoul for failing to pursue policies independent of its US allies and the short-lived removal of staff from the liaison office – as signals of displeasure aimed at Washington.

As such, Trump’s high-profile intervention on potential new sanctions may have mollified Kim’s regime.

“This looks like a signal that if the US do nothing, they should prepare for trouble, but then Trump moved in a different direction when he canceled sanctions, so North Korea reciprocated by canceling its own moves,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea watcher at Seoul’s Kookmin University, told Asia Times. “The US moves, then withdraws, so the North Koreans move, then withdraw. It has a nice symmetry.”

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