North Korea wants South Korea to stop activists from flying anti-Kim Jong Un propaganda balloons over their border. Photo: AFP/Getty

Everyone has seen it by now: images of the inter-Korean liaison office going up in smoke. But why has Pyongyang resorted to such an aggressive act against Seoul? Is it only because of anti-regime propaganda leaflets, or was that just a convenient excuse? And what can we make of Kim Jong Un’s decision on Wednesday to “suspend” military action plans against the South? 

Despite all the recent comments from Pyongyang bashing South Korea because of its failure to stop the propaganda balloons from crossing over the border, Seoul is not the real target here. This was confirmed by Kim’s comments about suspending military action plans. South Korea is simply a punching bag to get the attention of Pyongyang’s true target, the United States.

The US has long been North Korea’s main target, since it sees America as the only country that can give it what it so desires, sanctions relief and a long-term security guarantee.

Any peace treaty to formally end the Korean War – and finally open the door to long-term peace on the peninsula – would also have to be signed by the US, which adds to its importance.

Pyongyang has no reason to pay Seoul much attention until it gets some concessions out of the US, because no inter-Korean economic projects can be carried out as long as sanctions against the North remain. 

So why has North Korea decided to make a fuss about these leaflets now? Well, it has a lot to do with Covid-19.

North Korea’s economy has been hit extremely hard by the pandemic. Its borders with China have been closed since late January and trade between the two countries has plummeted by more than 90% compared with last year. This has resulted in an even more dire economic situation than usual. 

What’s worse, the capital city Pyongyang is being affected. It’s no secret that North Korea has been struggling economically for years because of sanctions, failed harvests, natural disasters,and for other reasons. But Pyongyang has largely been unaffected. That’s because it’s home to the country’s elite, the country’s highest social class who are regarded as the most loyal to the Kim regime. 

Covid-19 changed all this. Last week, Daily NK reported that the North Korean government had failed to provide rations to Pyongyang residents for the last three months. This puts into perspective just how dire the economic situation has become, given that the government has always been able to provide for the residents in its capital, even during the height of the country’s famine in the mid- to late 1990s. 

According to the same report, Pyongyang residents last received food rations in March. But these rations were made up of corn – not the usual rice – and were only sufficient to last for 12 days of the month.

“The situation is so dire that there is even talk of a ‘second Arduous March’ among Pyongyangites,” a Pyongyang-based source told Daily NK, using the official term for the famine of the mid-1990s.

With this context in mind, it’s not difficult to imagine why North Korea would feel the need to take drastic action to get America’s attention. US-North Korea bilateral talks have been stalled since the Hanoi summit, and President Donald Trump’s current focus is on domestic unrest and his re-election campaign. Washington hasn’t exactly been paying Pyongyang much attention lately. 

Because of these factors, it is highly likely that North Korea saw the leaflet issue as an possible opportunity to bring back the Americans to the negotiating table. By threatening military action agains the South, Pyongyang might be able to get America’s attention, or so it might think. 

Despite the explosion of the liaison office, Trump hasn’t shown much heightened interest in North Korea. In fact, he did the opposite of what Pyongyang wanted. He extended the sanctions for another year.

With the presidential election only a few months away, it is highly unlikely Trump would be willing to take a risky foreign-policy gamble by renewing direct diplomatic engagement with North Korea. This hasn’t always gone well, and he can’t afford any more big mishaps right before the election. 

Possibly realizing this, Kim Jong Un decided on Wednesday to call off military-action plans against the South that his sister Kim Yo Jong had threatened to take the previous week. Although details are lacking as to what exactly this suspension entails, it’s a small step in a better direction than where we were last week. It also indicates that Kim Jong Un, not his sister, is still in charge. It also shows that the North isn’t quite ready to burn all its bridges with the South. 

Still, the longer the US ignores the North Koreas, the more desperate they can become and the closer they may move to restarting their missile and nuclear tests. As long as the US side refuses to negotiate with the North Koreans, and instead continues its insistence on “denuclearization first” and its “maximum pressure approach,” both inter-Korean and US-DPRK relations are likely to continue deteriorating significantly. 

Gabriela Bernal is the founder of The Peninsula Report, and is a translator at Daily NK. You can find her on Twitter: @gabrielabbernal.