This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea’s move to sever communications with South Korea appears to be a signal that more provocations are on the horizon as Pyongyang tries to extract more concessions out of Seoul, experts told RFA.
The North’s state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) announced Tuesday that Pyongyang had shut down an inter-Korean liaison office and direct hotlines between the two Koreas because Seoul was not taking action to stop groups in the South from launching balloons carrying anti-Kim regime leaflets across the border into North Korean territory.
North Korea had threatened for several days to cut communications over the balloons. RFA’s Korean Service reported Monday that Pyongyang has been mobilizing citizens to denounce former North Korean citizens who criticize Kim Jong Un’s government from their homes in the South.
In Tuesday’s report KCNA reiterated that Pyongyang was holding Seoul responsible for not doing enough to stop the leaflet campaigns.
“The south Korean authorities connived at the hostile acts against the DPRK by the riff-raff, while trying to dodge heavy responsibility with nasty excuses. This has driven the inter-Korean relations into a catastrophe,” KCNA said, deliberately refusing to capitalize the s in South Korea in its publication of the report in English.
The report said senior North Korean officials “stressed that the work towards the south should thoroughly turn into the one against [an] enemy,” during a meeting to discuss relations with the South.
The officials included Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong, a close confidant of her brother who some observers believe is next in line in the ruling family, who had last week referred to exiles in the South as “human scum.”
The KCNA report said that the officials discussed a phased plan to deal with the South, ordering the shutdown by noon Tuesday of the liaison office, military communication lines located on the seas east and west of the peninsula, and a direct hotline between the Blue House in Seoul and the Central Committee office building in Pyongyang.
“This measure is the first step of the determination to completely shut down all contact means with South Korea and get rid of unnecessary things,” the KCNA report concluded.
More than just leaflets
U.S.-based analysts said that while North Korea may be saying its measures were in response to the leaflet campaigns, Pyongyang also had clear political motives in trying to pressure Seoul.
“North Korea’s frustrated with the current lack of progress on getting sanctions relief, and they’re frustrated by South Korea’s inability, or their unwillingness, to challenge Washington’s rigid policy [on sanctions],” Frank Aum of the United States Institute of Peace told RFA’s Korean Service.
The sanctions, aimed at depriving Pyongyang of cash and resources that could be funneled into its nuclear and missile programs, place restrictions on items that can be legally imported into North Korea. The curbs have hurt those North Koreans tied to the country’s emerging market economy.
Pyongyang had hoped that engaging with Seoul and Washington over the past few years would bring some form of sanctions relief, but after several summits between Kim Jong Un and his counterparts, sanctions remain in place.
Analysts believe that a frustrated Pyongyang can turn up the heat on the South to get what it wants.
“North Korea is trying to intimidate South Korea,” Gordon Chang, a lawyer and North Korea expert told RFA.
“North Korea thinks it can do so because Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president is susceptible to intimidation. He believes that relationships with the North are paramount,” said Chang.
North Korea is acting out because it likely wants a resumption of several inter-Korean projects that were cash cows, according to Mark Fitzpatrick, the former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Non-proliferation.
“I suppose the objective is to try to pressure the Republic of Korea into engaging in trade and reopening the Kumgang Mountain resorts and Kaesong industrial complex for North Korea,” Fitzpatrick told RFA.
The resort was shut down in 2008 and the inter-Korean industrial complex has been closed since 2016.
The moves might also be a domestic distraction, or a way to pad Kim Yo Jong’s resume to solidify her place as anointed successor, according to The Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner.
However, Klingner told RFA the chief motive was “to pressure Moon into offering yet more concessions,” adding that President Moon was eager to offer security and economic cooperation in the past.
“But Moon is constrained by what he can offer because of the U.N. sanctions as well as U.S. laws. And right now the populace in South Korea might not be all that eager to offer more concessions to the North because it hasn’t led to anything,” Klingner said.
More Provocations Ahead
Several North Korea-watchers saw Pyongyang’s moves as an indication that further provocations are in store.
“It can also be a way of trying to lay the ground work for North Korean provocative actions while blaming the South for it’s action, so by threatening to sever the comprehensive military agreement [CMA], dismantling Kaesong, sort of, veiled threats of additional measures against the enemy, it may be trying to make Moon even more desperate to offer concessions,” said Klingner.
The CMA, intended to reduce military tensions to prevent an accidental clash, came out of the September 2018 inter-Korean summit.
Two South Korea-based experts said Pyongyang might take steps to add more pressure on Seoul.
“North Korea could close the inter-Korean liaison office and even dismantle the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the future,” Shin Beom-Chul, the head of the Diplomatic Security Center at the Korean Research Institute for National Strategy told RFA.
“Furthermore, I think it could end the 9/19 inter-Korean military agreement,” he said, referring to the CMA by the month and day it went into effect in 2018.
Cho Han Bum of the Korea Institute of National Unification told RFA, “In this way, the show of force is foreseeable.
“However, North Korea will not be able to carry out high-intensity provocations for the time being, and it can [only] stage a show of force to express its discontent,” said Cho.
The U.S. Department of State, meanwhile expressed disappointment with the closure.
“The United States has always supported progress in inter-Korean relations, and we are disappointed in the DPRK’s recent actions. We urge the DPRK to return to diplomacy and cooperation,” a spokesperson for the state department told RFA.
Challenge to free speech
South Korea responded to the North’s demand that it halt the balloon launches by announcing its intention to pass laws to make the flights illegal – a possibility given that Moon’s Democratic Party holds an absolute majority in parliament.
South Korea’s right wing was furious.
The main opposition United Future Party said the balloons were effective and legal under South Korean free-speech laws.
North Korea is vulnerable to psychological warfare, a fact South Korea should take advantage of, Kim Yong-hyun, former chief director of operations at South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a policy seminar on North Korean threats at the National Assembly Tuesday.
“Though not as [powerful] as North Korea’s nuclear program, psychological warfare against North Korea is an asymmetric strategy that South Korea can have. It doesn’t make sense to regulate it by law,” said Kim.
An opposition party leader said that the North is only using the leaflets as a way to get attention.
“North Korea wants to shake the table to find a breakthrough because of the prolonged U.N. Security Council sanctions and the coronavirus crisis,” said Joo Ho-young, the United Future Party’s Chairman.