What can we learn from North Korea blowing up liaison office on its border this week?

What can we learn from North Korea blowing up liaison office on its border this week?

Last Tuesday, North Korea blew up a liaison office it opened with South Korea in 2018 and threatened to surge troops into the demilitarized zone, once again ramping up tensions on the peninsula in a bid to extract fresh concessions from the South Koreans and Americans. Because Seoul and Pyongyang remain in a state of war, the liaison office that was shelled in the border city of Kaesong has functioned as something akin to an embassy. Seoul responded that “North Korea will obviously be held accountable” and promised a forceful response to any further provocations.

James Hoare of SOAS kindly provided the Institute some notes on what we are to make of this episode, and they are provided here:

1) How significant is the destruction of the liaison office in itself? Is it mostly symbolic or can cause serious technical problems in the future?

Answer. The office has not really functioned for some time and it is in DPRK territory. It says that the North does not want anything more to do with the South because it has allowed anti-DPRK balloons. If they want to talk, they can find channels. It is a symbolic gesture.

The DPRK has also expressed irritation with Moon’s suggestions that he can help get the US to re-engage.. They are saying we do not need your help – we can deal with the US ourselves – even if they cannot in reality because the US is distracted by other things such as the virus, the economy and, especially, the presidential election.

2) Are North Korean threats to re-enter zones demilitarised after the 2018 summit a bluff or Pyongyang could actually resort to such a move, in your opinion? What consequences will Pyongyang’s possible re-entry to these zones have?

Answer. They could, if they wished, say that in the current climate of hostility, all that they are doing is asserting their rights under the 1953 Armistice. Again, it is a largely symbolic move – I doubt if either side ever actually moved their forces very far from the DMZ.

3) What is North Korea’s endgame in all these moves and warnings? What does it hope to achieve? What may it do next?

Answer. I think that this is really aimed at the US. They do not want to attack Trump or the US directly in the hope that they can persuade the US to re-engage.  The ROK is a surrogate target. The DPRK know that if it wants to, it can probably easily get the ROK back to talks, especially while Moon is president. 

It may also be aimed at a domestic audience. Some ROK commentators are claiming that it is meant to diverge attention from problems with the DPRK economy because of sanctions and the ongoing concern about the Coronavirus. In any case, it shows the leadership being tough.

4) Do all these moves indicate a full U-turn in relations with the South? Is the return to the previous status quo possible? What does it require?

Answer. Not necessarily. It shows a growing sense of frustration with the general way things have developed, especially with the US.  And Moon shows no sign of not wanting to have better relations with the North. So if they get some change, they could go back to being nice – if not, they will continue to build up the rhetoric and make symbolic gestures.

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