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[Editorial] Premeditated about-face

Seoul should not be swayed by Pyongyang’s move to shelve planned military actions

In what appears to be yet another premeditated move, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made a decision Tuesday to put on hold plans for military actions against South Korea.

The decision, made during a preliminary meeting of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party, came as the commission was poised to endorse a set of actions that Pyongyang has threatened to take in anger over Seoul’s failure to prevent North Korean defectors here from sending anti-Kim leaflets across the border.

After the communist state’s official media reported on Kim’s decision Wednesday, North Korean soldiers were seen removing propaganda loudspeakers recently set up along the border with South Korea. The North’s propaganda outlets have also withdrawn all articles critical of the South.

Pyongyang has ratcheted up tensions with Seoul since early this month, with Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader’s increasingly powerful sister, at the forefront of the recalcitrant regime’s return to a provocative mode.

As warned earlier in a statement issued in her name, the North last week demolished a liaison office shared with the South in its border town of Kaesong. The move represented a slap in the face to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has been preoccupied with inter-Korean reconciliation, prompting speculation on how far the North would go in intensifying tensions on the peninsula.

Pyongyang’s latest offensives against Seoul seem to have multiple motivations.

It apparently wanted to tame the Moon government to its will. Its anger at the leaflets sent from the South appears eventually aimed at pushing Seoul into resuming major inter-Korean projects at the risk of breaching US-led international sanctions imposed on the communist state for its nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

The repressive regime used the renewed confrontation to contain internal discontent with growing economic difficulties caused by international sanctions coupled with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

In the course of escalating tensions with Seoul, the North Korean leader’s sister consolidated her authority.

The North now might well judge that its intentions have been achieved to a considerable degree. Its latest moves led to getting the South to pledge to enact a law banning the sending of leaflets into the North and drawing attention again from the US and China.

Kim might have made the decision to hold off on further actions at this stage under a scenario that is certain to have been drawn up before Pyongyang took its latest confrontational approach.

The move marked his first official activity in more than two weeks since he presided over a meeting of the Politburo of the Workers’ Party on June 7. At least from Pyongyang’s viewpoint, it helped his image as a paramount leader to manage conflict on the peninsula above his sister and the South Korean president.

Through his decision, the North is also seen as signaling it would still open the possibility of seeking top-down solutions to issues with the South through additional inter-Korean summits.

Pyongyang’s latest maneuver showed the North Korean leader and his sister alternating roles as a “good cop” and “bad cop” in dealing with Seoul. An expected repetition of this approach will make it harder for the Moon administration to maintain a consistent position on the North.

Pyongyang may strengthen pressure on Seoul to go beyond the international sanctions framework to revive inter-Korean economic projects and stop joint military drills with the US.

Kim’s decision to shelve, not repeal, planned military actions, suggests it will return to a provocative mode anytime when it feels the need to do so.

Under these circumstances, the Moon government should deal with the Kim regime based on firm and clear principles to avoid being swayed by its cunning tactics.

It should draw a line in what it could do in the absence of Pyongyang’s sincere commitment to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and send an unequivocal message that its further provocative acts would be met with proportional responses. There should be no doubt that such responses will include measures to strengthen joint military exercises between South Korea and the US and bring US strategic assets back here.

Pyongyang’s latest moves should serve to get the Moon government’s policy toward the North to abandon wishful thinking and be founded on cool-headed recognition of the reality. It needs to ensure that a possible resumption of inter-Korean talks is preceded by holding the North responsible for the demolition of the liaison office built in 2018 with South Korean taxpayers’ money.