SEOUL – In an unpleasant surprise for South Korea, North Korea on Tuesday resumed hardline actions against its southern neighbor that may signal the start of a new and escalating cycle.
Pyongyang slashed all communications links across the border in apparent anger at the launch of propaganda balloons across the DMZ by anti-North Korean civilian activists.
The move was particularly humiliating for Seoul, which had earlier bowed to a North Korean demand that it halt the balloon flights. There was no immediate response from the South Korean presidential office to the North’s action.
“Our side will completely cut off and shut down” all communications lines with the South, Pyongyang’s Korea Central News Agency said on Tuesday morning.
Those lines include military communications lines on the east and west sides of the DMZ, one in the North Korean city of Kaesong, just north of the border, where the two sides maintain a liaison office, and a hotline between Kim Jong Un’s State Affairs Commission – the secretariat of which Kim is chairman – and the South’s presidential Blue House.
Blue House officials declined to tell Asia Times if the hotline, which, like the Kaesong liaison office, was established amid amicable relations in 2018, has ever been used.
The North did not respond on Tuesday to routine calls from the South via the links, according to South Korean media quoting government sources.
The North Korean move represents a blow, humiliation and policy challenge to Seoul’s Moon Jae-in administration. The Moon government is arguably the most pro-Pyongyang administration ever to sit in Seoul and improving inter-Korean relations has been a major policy plank.
Moon enjoyed positively chummy relations with Kim during summits in 2018, but after the failure of the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2019, relations soured.
Staying true to his alliance with the US, Moon has refused to break sanctions and engage in economic relations with North Korea. As a result, Pyongyang has ignored repeated Seoul calls for Kim to mirror Moon’s Pyongyang visit with a trip to the South.
Last Thursday, after North Korean state media demanded the balloon flights stop, Seoul responded quickly. Within hours of the demand’s publication, it announced its intention to legislate against the flights.
That move can be railroaded through, brushing aside domestic free-speech concerns, because following April 15 legislative elections Moon’s Democratic Party enjoys an absolute majority in the unicameral parliament.
South Korea’s right wing was furious. The Joongang Daily newspaper accused Seoul of “kowtowing to Kim.” Now, Pyongyang has entirely ignored Seoul’s promise and cut the border links.
Last week, there were – despite Covid-19 – mass rallies against South Korea in North Korea. Analysts say the steps mark the beginning of a new cycle of escalation that had been delayed due to domestic economic concerns and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Gallingly for Seoul, it may find itself a whipping boy lacking any leverage over events, as Pyongyang’s main preoccupation is to engage Washington.
Pyongyang has long been irked by helium balloons flown over the border that land inside the isolated state. The balloons, launched by activist groups heavily comprising North Korean defectors and Christian groups usually contain anti-regime propaganda such as images of leader Kim as a pig.
As an incentive for North Koreans to pick them up, they also contain such goodies as foodstuffs, USB sticks with South Korean news or entertainment programming and even US dollars.
North Korea has frequently made clear its anger at the activity in ways that go beyond rhetoric. In a murky affair in 2014, a man was arrested by South Korean intelligence officials for plotting the assassination of a prominent balloon flyer at Pyongyang’s behest.
In May 2018, the two Korean leaders agreed to halt all cross-DMZ activities, including balloon flights. Now, ignoring Seoul’s swift response to its complaint, Pyongyang has cut communications.
“It’s a bit of a loss of face for the Moon administration,” said Steve Tharp, a US Army colonel retired in South Korea who has six years’ experience of negotiating with the North Korean military.
The North Korean move is a “temper tantrum,” added Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at Seoul-based think tank the Asan Institute.
Worse may be to come. The KCNA noted that the severance of communications is “the first step of a determination to completely shut down all contact channels with South Korea and get rid of non-essential things.”
“This is just the first of several steps,” said Tharp. “The Comprehensive Military Agreement could be next – we could see their guys at the Joint Security Area, or JSA, strapping guns back on and returning to guard posts.”
That agreement, signed by Moon and Kim, involved a no-fly zone over the DMZ, as well as a range of symbolic steps such as the removal of pistols from troops at the JSA truce village, the demolition of a handful of guard posts inside the DMZ and the recovery of bodies from the 1950-53 Korean War inside the DMZ.
The “non-essential things” the KCNA mentioned it could “get rid of” could be the inter-government liaison office – the main fruit of the inter-Korean engagement of 2018.
Or it could be abandoned South Korean-built facilities in an deserted industrial park in the North Korean town of Kaesong and at the North Korean resort of Mount Kumgang.
The South Korean projects, worth billions of dollars, were halted respectively in 2015 and 2008 due to political tensions. But it has long been an ambition of pro-engagers in Seoul to reopen them if and when conditions permit.
“They need to start the provocation road map that was in a hiatus due to the Covid crisis,” said Go of the Asan Institute. “This year is very important for them as there is an election in the US so they can mount a lot of pressure on Trump.”
A hard line toward South Korea was formulated at December’s Worker Party Plenum, but was delayed by domestic economic issues which required the leadership’s input like the Covid-19 pandemic, said Rachel Lee, who scrutinizes North Korean state media and previously worked as an analyst of open-source data for the US government.
“I think they had this plan for a while, and they see the leaflets as an opportunity or a pretext,” Lee said.
Looking ahead, she anticipates an upsurge in North Korean artillery tests. “There is a lot of focus on that,” Lee said. “To achieve domination over South Korea, they can show their artillery – then move on to something more strategic.”
The question now is how far North Korea will go and at what point the US will react.
“There will be small, incremental provocations and short-range missile tests that will start to create a crescendo of tensions,” said Go. “This creates space for the US to intervene before an ICBM test.”
Many expect North Korea to be wary during the US electoral cycle, hence a spiraling series of provocations before doing something that would truly risk Washington’s ire.
“It is a typical North Korean playbook to start provocations against South Korea to create tensions that the media amplify,” Go said. “It does not threaten the US, but signals the US to pay attention to the Korean peninsula.”
Analysts say Pyongyang is rallying domestic support by raising tensions against external enemies. That suggests Seoul is powerless to change the dynamic. And the real adversary North Korea seeks to engage is in Washington, note Seoul.
“The North Koreans don’t want anything from South Korea, they want to mount tensions,” said Go. “If they accept a gift from South Korea, they have to stop the road map.”
“I don’t think there is anything the Moon administration can do,” said Lee. “They are observers,” added Tharp.