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North Korea demolishes liaison office, experts warn of further actions

Seoul warns of consequences of further provocation by North

(Photo provided by reader-Yonhap)
(Photo provided by reader-Yonhap)

North Korea on Tuesday demolished an inter-Korean liaison office in its territory near the border, following through on threats and leaving South Korea with little in the way of options.

According to Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, the North blew up the four-story building at 2:49 p.m., hours after its military warned of refortifying areas disarmed in accordance with inter-Korean agreements. A National Security Council meeting presided over by National Security Office chief Chung Eui-yong was convened in Seoul at 5:05 p.m.

“The government expressed strong regret at the North demolishing the inter-Korean liaison office that was established under the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration,” Kim You-geun, deputy director of Cheong Wa Dae’s national security office, said following the meeting. Kim said that the demolition is an act that goes against hopes for peace, and that the North has sole responsibility for all consequences that may follow.

“We sternly warn that we will respond strongly if the North continues to take actions that deteriorate the situation.”

The liaison office was established in September 2018, as agreed to by the two sides during the first summit between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held on April 27.

The move came three days after a warning from Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader’s sister and a ranking Workers’ Party of Korea official.

(Video provided by the Ministry of National Defense)

Experts say the move is a desperate tactic to pressure Seoul, and the first step toward nullifying all agreements made with the Moon administration.

“There are two meanings. One is that by demolishing the liaison office (the North) is showing symbolically that economic cooperation is over,” said Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum.” “The next step is terminating the military agreement.”

He added that Pyongyang has a number of options for raising military tensions, citing military drills in the West Sea and increasing maneuvers within the Demilitarized Zone as short-term possibilities.

“This means that our North Korean policies need to be changed now. (The North) will keep pressuring us, these kind of actions will continue.”

Such views were echoed by former head of the Korea Institute for National Unification Kim Tae-woo, who said that Tuesday’s action is a continuation of the North’s strategy on Seoul.

“Their message (to the South) has been clear; to not listen to the US and to ignore international sanctions,” Kim said. He added that demolition of the liaison office is retribution for Seoul’s incompliance.

Saying that Seoul reaching out to Pyongyang again will result in a more serious situation, Kim said the Moon administration must take a firm stance.

“(South Korea) should take the position that provocations will be punished, while leaving open the door to dialogue. There is nothing else we can do.”

The North has been ramping up increasingly bellicose rhetoric against the South from early this month, taking issue with anti-North Korean propaganda distributed across the border by South Korean nongovernment organizations.

On June 4, Yo-jong issued a statement warning of consequences and listing demolition of the Kaesong industrial park, closing of the liaison office and termination of the inter-Korean military agreement as possibilities. On Saturday, Yo-jong warned of Tuesday’s development, saying that “the sight of the useless inter-Korea liaison office falling down” will be witnessed in the near future.

While the North quickly followed with action, some experts say the North’s steps in stages may be an indication of there being room for Seoul to maneuver.

“What’s important is that there is room for us. If they really wanted to do it, they could demolish everything at the same time, but the fact that they are taking one thing at a time with advance warnings means that there is room for improvement (in inter-Korean relations),” commented Cho Han-bum, a senior analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

He said that Pyongyang is likely to space out its actions to take the time to see the response from the South.

“We need to stabilize the situation, by sending a special envoy, or working below the surface to restore communications channels. We have more to lose.”

Earlier on Tuesday, the North Korean military warned of reestablishing its presence in areas disarmed in accordance with inter-Korean agreements.

In a statement released through the North Korean state media, the General Staff Department of the Korean People’s Army revealed that plans were under review concerning the refortification of areas along the border and the resumption of the North’s propaganda campaign.

“We have received opinions on action plans for fortifying the front lines in areas disarmed under the North-South agreement and strengthening military vigilance against the South from the United Front Department and departments concerning relations against the enemy,” the statement said.

Although the statement did not specify the disarmed areas, it has been speculated that areas in and around the Kaesong industrial park and Kumgangsan are likely candidates.

Kaesong had a heavy military presence until work began on the industrial park in 2003, as the area was considered to have high strategic value for a cross-border invasion. The area around Kumgangsan also had a heavy military presence before a resort was built for cross-border tourism. Reactivation of the Kaesong industrial park and of tourism at Kumgangsan are said to have been high on the North’s list of priorities in talks with Seoul and Washington.

The industrial complex has been closed since 2016, following a nuclear weapons test, and tours to Kumgangsan were halted in 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean solider.

The statement from the North’s military also hinted that it would resume its practice of sending propaganda leaflets across the border.

By Choi He-suk and Choi Si-young (cheesuk@heraldcorp.com) (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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