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[Editorial] Renewed brinkmanship

Seoul should not wince at Pyongyang’s latest threat of military provocation

All efforts made so far by President Moon Jae-in’s administration to reconcile with North Korea are now met with the recalcitrant regime’s threat to heighten tensions on the peninsula.

The North has been lashing out at the South almost every day since early this month in anger over anti-Pyongyang leaflets flown by North Korean defectors here across the border into the communist state.

Culminating in a series of harshly worded threats was a statement issued Saturday by Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which signaled a military provocation against the South.

“I feel it is high time to surely break with the South Korean authorities. We will soon take the next action,” Kim said in the statement carried by the North’s state-run news agency.

She did not elaborate on what the next action would be, but suggested it might be a military move by saying the North’s army “has been entrusted to plan and take any necessary action.”

Her statement came about a week after she threatened to scrap all inter-Korean deals if Seoul continued to let defectors send anti-Pyongyang leaflets.

It was preceded by remarks made Friday by another North Korean official handling inter-Korean affairs that the North has lost all confidence in the South Korean government and there would be “remorseful and painful times ahead” for Seoul.

Earlier last week, North Korea called the South an enemy, vowing to cut off all communication lines between the two Koreas. Since then, it has refused to answer any phone calls from Seoul.

It is notable that Pyongyang is continuing to ratchet up tensions with Seoul despite the Moon government’s efforts to stop defectors from flying leaflets into the North.

On Thursday, Cheong Wa Dae, the presidential office, vowed that Seoul would thoroughly crack down on the sending of leaflets across the border. On the same day, the Unification Ministry filed a criminal complaint with police against two North Korean defector groups for sending leaflets across the border.

But Pyongyang called such moves “slightly more advanced excuses” that were too late in coming.

It is apparent that the repressive regime is deliberately heightening tensions with Seoul, not just expressing its discontent with the leaflets flown into its territory.

Pyongyang’s return to the confrontational approach embarrasses the Moon government, which has tried to promote inter-Korean cooperation while trumpeting the results of a string of summits between Moon and the North Korean leader.

Saturday’s statement made it clear that possible military action would be preceded by the demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office, which was built in the North Korean city of Kaesong as agreed at their first summit in April 2018.

The North’s recent moves seem mainly aimed at putting pressure on Seoul to resume major lucrative cross-border projects in violation of US-led international sanctions. It would be hard for the Moon government to take such a move, which is certain to ire Washington that has stressed inter-Korean economic cooperation should go in step with significant progress in denuclearizing the North.

Pyongyang’s attempt to heighten tensions with Seoul also appears designed to contain growing internal discontent about difficulties caused by prolonged international sanctions coupled with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

On Sunday, Rodong Sinmun, the organ of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, carried the full text of Kim’s statement along with other articles vowing repetitive and thorough retaliation against Seoul.

It has yet to be seen whether the North would go so far as to conduct a long-range missile test in the lead-up to the US presidential election in November.

North Korea vowed to build up a “more reliable” force against military threats from the US in a statement issued by Foreign Minister Ri Son-gwon last week on the second anniversary of the first-ever summit between the two countries. But Pyongyang is likely to refrain from making provocations that would invite a strong backlash from US President Donald Trump.

Measures taken so far by the North indicate that it is moving in accordance with carefully calculated tactics.

Seoul needs to deal with Pyongyang’s renewed brinkmanship based on clear and concrete principles to make the North recognize that it would face proportionate response to and due consequences for its provocative acts.

In a press briefing after an emergency meeting of top South Korean security officials Sunday, a presidential spokesperson just said they reviewed the current situation on the peninsula without expressing regret over Pyongyang’s threat of military action. This meek attitude will not help Seoul counter Pyongyang’s confrontational approach.
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