People watch a television news screen showing an explosion of an inter-Korean liaison office in North Korea's Kaesong Industrial Complex, at a railway station in Seoul on June 16, 2020. - North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office on its side of the border on June 16, the South's Unification ministry said, after days of increasingly virulent rhetoric from Pyongyang. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP)

SEOUL – North Korea blew up a landmark liaison office with South Korea on Tuesday in the latest in an escalating series of provocations targeting its southern neighbor.

Nobody was reported to be killed or injured at the inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office, which was located inside North Korea, just north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas. Operations at the office had, in fact, been suspended in January amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Pyongyang’s Korea Central News Agency said that relevant authorities of the country “put into practice the measure of completely destroying” the office. Distant TV footage from the South showed smoke billowing over the site, which was reported demolished at 2:50 pm on Tuesday.

Though there was no statement from President Moon Jae-in, who, in 2018, expended significant political capital on establishing pally personal relations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, South Korea’s National Security Council immediately convened.

In a message sent to foreign reporters, the NSC said it “deeply regrets” North Korea’s “unilateral destruction” of the liaison office – an action which “runs contrary to our expectations for the development of relations between South and North Korea.”

Adopting a tougher tone, the NSC added: “All responsibility for this incident falls on the North’s side. If the North tries to make the situation worse, we will take strong action. That is a serious warning.” 

The destruction of the office was not unexpected. It came days after the North said it was severing all communications with the South after a series of anti-South Korea rallies were held in the North, and after a range of aggressive press statements from Kim Yo Jong, the country’s propaganda chief and sister of national leader Kim Jong Un, were published.

Ostensibly the North is enraged at the dispatch of balloons, which carry defamatory leaflets about Kim and his regime and are launched from the south side of the border. While the two Koreas have jointly agreed to halt cross-border propaganda operations, the balloons were not a government operation but were released by activists, defectors and NGOs.

However, experts say the balloons were likely just an excuse for North Korea’s current aggressive behavior. Exactly what is behind that behavior is unclear, but there could be both internal and external motivating factors at work.

Liaison Office gone

The liaison office, established in the wake of a promising improvement in inter-Korean relations in early 2018, provided Pyongyang and Seoul with an unprecedented communications channel.

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, communications between the two states had largely taken place in secret, closed-door meetings, via cross border military telecommunications lines or on the sidelines of international summits.

The liaison office was the first channel at which working-level civil servants from both Koreas could sit, face to face, and discuss issues of mutual concern.

It was established in an abandoned South Korean industrial park just outside the North Korean city of Kaesong, which lies just north of the DMZ. The industrial park, marrying low-cost North Korean labor to South Korean capital and companies, started operations in 2004, but closed in 2016 amid tensions.

Like so many inter-Korean projects, the office’s symbolic value may have been more significant than its utility.

Smoke rises from North Korea’s Kaesong Industrial Complex where an inter-Korean liaison office was set up in 2018. Photo: AFP/STR/Yonhap

“The two Koreas lived without it for nearly 70 years and it never produced much,” said Andrei Lankov, a Pyongyangologist based at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “So I would not overestimate the significance of this event. It is just another step on the escalatory path.”

On Saturday, Kim Yo Jong warned that the liaison office could be “completely collapsed.” And earlier Tuesday, North Korean People’s Army General Staff released a statement saying it was reviewing plans to re-enter border areas that had been demilitarized under inter-Korean agreements.

The plunge in cross-border relations – from the heady bromance of inter-Korean summits in 2018 to the explosive tensions of Tuesday – stem from the failure of Kim Jong Un and United States President Donald Trump to reach a deal during their summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2019.

As a result, North Korean denuclearization stalled, and it won no sanction relief. And with Seoul beholden to its ally Washington, a wide range of hoped-for inter-Korean economic projects, such as trade and transport, power and logistics links, never got off the ground.  

Now the balloons are a casus belli, or an act of war, but Lankov considers them “irrelevant.” Indeed. Even after Seoul announced on June 4, in response to Northern anger, that it would prevent future balloon flights, Pyongyang went ahead with the slashing of cross-border communications lines on June 9.

External, internal drivers

The larger reasons for Pyongyang’s aggressive stance could be external or internal. Externally, it is feasible that Pyongyang wants to pressure Seoul into interceding with Washington to resume dialog.  

“I think the balloons are just an excuse,” for North Korea’s current actions, said Choi Jin-wook, who formerly headed government-run think tank the Korean Institute of National Unification, or KINU. “They are trying to raise tensions because they want to talk with the US.”

On the internal front, the opaque nation – also the most impoverished state in Northeast Asia – is believed to be enduring an economic double whammy.

It has been wilting under international sanctions for years, with the most onerous being installed in 2016. More recently, it has closed its borders with China as a result of Covid-19.

Given that the border with South Korea, the DMZ, is completely sealed against trade, and there is minimal economic interaction with Russia, the China frontier is the crossing over which virtually all of North Korea’s commercial activity takes place.

“It seems that the North Koreans have come to the conclusion that with Covid-19 and the US presidential election, that it is the right time to force the hand of the South Korean government,” added Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general who formerly led his country’s special operations command.

“They want the South Korean government to persuade the US government to start economic exchanges between North and South Korea if possible with US approval, but also without US approval.”

So far, South Korea has promised much to the North, but delivered little.

“The South Koreans are broadly smiling and saying a lot of nice stuff but not doing anything, just showering the North Koreans with proposals which are irrelevant and of zero value,” said Lankov. “North Korea is run by hyper realists who care only about money.”

Moreover, Kim Jong Un may be suffering from health issues. He has maintained a low profile even after rumors of a serious heart-related illness – or death – were dashed when he reappeared, after a weeks-long absence, on May 2.

This could explain the rising public profile of his sister.

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. Photo: AFP

“Probably we have a situation that, for some unknown reasons – likely medical – Kim Jong Un’s ability to act and work is limited and that means he is basically relying on his replacement,” said Lankov. “Though I am pretty sure he authorizes all decisions.”

All these elements, in combination, suggest the need for the leadership to rally the people around the flag by generating external tensions.

“You want to keep your support base as large as possible, and you want to condition your inner core,” said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based international relations expert with Troy University. “You reconfirm nationalist credentials, which are part of their ideology, and you keep the carrot dangling – ‘We are working for reunification, and that will solve all our problems.’”

Escalatory ladder

The next rung on the escalatory ladder is unknown, but the North Korean General Staff statement offers wide options.

A low-level escalation could be to re-arm sentries in the DMZ truce village of Panmunjom. Troops from both sides were disarmed as a peaceful gesture, following the signing of the inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement in September 2018.

North Korean troops could possibly occupy the entire Kaesong Industrial Complex – a strategic location only 40 miles north of Seoul. Or, they could move into the shuttered South Korean-built, but similarly abandoned, Mount Kumgang Tourist Resort.

A risker move would be to once again challenge the Northern Limit Line, a sea border emplaced without North Korean agreement at the end of the Korean War. The NLL in the Yellow Sea, and South Korean occupied islands in the area, were the scene of deadly incidents in 1999, 2002, 2004, 2009 and 2010.

This means Seoul faces a large range of risks to manage, but there are questions over how far North Korea is willing to prosecute actions.

“There is a whole spectrum of different measures and actions the North Koreans could take,” said Pinkston. “Anyone can make claims – but do you have the capability and will to enforce it?”

However, Chun, the former general, warned that the North Koreans should not be underestimated.

“One thing I have learned from my experience with North Korea is that they don’t make fake threats,” he said. “They exaggerate, mostly for internal purposes, but they usually carry it out. In light of that tendency, we need to be prepared.”