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North Korea building case for further provocation: experts

Kim Yo-jong (Yonhap)
Kim Yo-jong (Yonhap)

Pyongyang ratcheting up threats against Seoul in the last few days, halting the inter-Korean liaison office and scrapping a military agreement, could be a prelude to military provocations, experts here said Sunday.

The North lashed out with a series of threats from Thursday, in retaliation against Seoul’s failure to prevent defector-run civic groups from sending anti-North Korean leaflets across the border. On Sunday, the North’s state newspaper Rodong Sinmun carried pages of reports blasting Seoul’s leaflet campaign, calling the defectors “mongrel dogs” and “human scum” who insulted the dignity of North Korea’s supreme leadership and its citizens.

Kim Yo-jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s powerful sister, is at the center of the North’s attacks against the South. She had warned of a number of measures, including shuttering the liaison office and permanent closure of a suspended joint factory park in the border town of Kaesong, both of which are symbols of detente between the two countries, and scrapping the 2018 cross-border military agreement.

On Friday, the United Front Department, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said the North will shut down the liaison office first, and hinted at other mentioned measures to follow to punish Seoul.

Thae Yong-ho, a defector-turned-lawmaker in Seoul, analyzed that Kim’s statement serves as a way to cement the grip within North Korea as well as a prelude to unveiling new strategic weapons or further provocations in the future.

“If Kim intended to pressure the South Korean government to stop the anti-North Korean leaflets, it (the North) could have announced such measures through the North’s propaganda outlets against the South,” said Thae. “But announcing in the Rodong Sinmun, which is read by North Korean citizens, is aimed at strengthening domestic unity, not directed to the outside world.

“If Kim Jong-un judges there will be no progress on relations between Pyongyang and Washington, and with Seoul, it could introduce new strategic weapons to increase its bargaining power against the US and South Korea, and ways to overcome North’s domestic situation, which is shaken by economic deterioration.”

“Starting with a threat to close down the liaison office, the North could conduct further military provocations, such as opening the artillery gun ports near the maritime border (in the West Sea), adding tension in the Northern Limit Line,”” Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University, told The Korea Herald. “By elevating tension on the Korean Peninsula, it intends to pressure Korea to resume halted Kumgangsan tours and the Kaesong industrial park, through urging the US and international society to lift sanctions. The North is pressuring the US through the South.”

Park also added that the North is aware its threats work, as the Unification Ministry on Thursday revealed its plan to legislate a law banning the leaflet launches, just a few hours after Kim Yo-jong’s blasts, and will likely continue to pressure to get its way through.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said if Seoul does not come up with corresponding actions as it promised, it could make further provocations.

“If the (South) Korean government doesn’t ban the leaflets, and doesn’t come up with follow-up actions, the North will accelerate pressure against the South,” he said. “For North Korea, it had given into what South Korea had asked for, such as the military agreement, and the Panmunjom Declaration. But they feel as though the North gained nothing from it. As the US-North Korean negotiation faces a deadlock, it is putting blame on the South for not actively working to improve inter-Korean relations, and with the US.”

Yang also stressed Yo-jong’s statements confirm the elevated status for the leader’s younger sister, as the No. 2 of the reclusive regime.

“The UFD stated Yo-jong ordered officials to look into implementing a series of measures against South Korea, and that she is in charge of the inter-Korean affairs,” he said.

On such hard-lined threats, Seoul government on Sunday said it remains committed toward upholding the peace agreements between the leaders of the two Koreas.

“Our basic position is to comply with the agreements made by the leaders of the South and North, such as the Panmunjeom Declaration,” the Ministry of Unification said, without mentioning the UFD’s statement nor shutting down the liaison office.

Seoul’s Foreign Ministry officials had also discussed the countermeasures following Yo-jong’s statement Thursday, with counterparts in Washington, according to the ministry on Sunday.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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