AS THEATRICS GO, it was impeccable. Shortly before three o’clock on the afternoon of June 16th an enormous cloud of smoke billowed suddenly from the site of the inter-Korean liaison office in the North Korean border city of Kaesong. As the dust settled, the building and a sizeable portion of its surroundings re-emerged, reduced to rubble. North Korean state media triumphantly reported in its afternoon broadcast that the office had been destroyed in a “terrific explosion”.
Along with the liaison office, which since opening in September 2018 had operated as a de facto embassy between the two Koreas, the North blew up what little was left of a two-year period of inter-Korean detente. The move followed a spring filled with short-range-missile tests, weeks of raging against the South by the regime’s propaganda organs and the severing of communication lines with the South on June 9th. The government in Pyongyang has also threatened further action, such as the dispatch of troops to the demilitarised zone and other border areas from which it had previously withdrawn. The regime is clearly trying to manufacture a fresh crisis. What is less clear is what it is hoping to achieve by doing so.
The advertised purpose of the demolition was to assuage apparent popular anger about the launch across the border of anti-regime leaflets attached to balloons, by North Korean defectors, which the South had promised to stop in 2018. It follows weeks of increasingly colourful invective from the regime’s propaganda organs, which have been deriding the defectors as “human scum” and “mongrel dogs”. But the leaflet launches, which have been happening for years and are not considered terribly effective by most analysts, are likely to be a pretext. Even after South Korea responded to the North’s threats by cracking down on the defector groups, prompting alarm at home about the suppression of free speech, Kim Jong Un’s regime dismissed the response as insufficient.
An alternative theory is that the North is trying to put pressure on its neighbour to make more substantial economic concessions, or to force America back to the negotiating table for another attempt at gaining sanctions relief. Even before the latest escalation, inter-Korean relations had been in a poor state. Economic co-operation (read: the South’s money flowing into the North’s coffers) between the two countries cannot go ahead without the easing of sanctions, which in turn depends on progress in disarmament talks between North Korea and America. These have made no headway since a summit between Donald Trump and Mr Kim in Hanoi in February last year broke down without agreement. Since then the regime has repeatedly expressed its frustration at the lack of progress, chiding the government in Seoul for failing to do more to move relations along. It has also rebuffed attempts by the South to maintain co-operation in a low-key way, for instance through offers of humanitarian aid.
However, if extracting concessions by raising pressure is the strategy, the likelihood of success looks relatively low. Mr Trump, who is preoccupied by America’s covid-19 crisis and his struggle for re-election, has paid little attention to North Korea in recent weeks. After the Kaesong explosion, the State Department issued a boilerplate statement urging the regime to “refrain from counterproductive actions”. South Korea, for its part, sharpened its usually conciliatory tone in response to the latest taunts. A senior general blustered that North Korea would “pay the price” if it took further military action. The office of Moon Jae-in, the president, declared that South Korea would no longer tolerate the North’s “senseless” and “very rude” statements and urged the country to observe “basic etiquette”. If anything, the affair has made Mr Moon less receptive to Mr Kim’s demands.
This leaves the possibility that the motive for the North’s recent actions is mainly domestic. The propaganda campaign that preceded the demolition of the liaison office was spearheaded by Kim Yo Jong, the dictator’s younger sister, who also issued the fiercest invective against the South. The regime may be seeking to raise Ms Kim’s profile by strengthening her hardline credentials, reckons Andray Abrahamian of George Mason University Korea. Kim Jong Un has been unusually absent from public view this year, prompting rumours about his health and speculation about who might succeed him. His sister tops the list of possible candidates. An added bonus of the current campaign might be to distract from domestic economic difficulties caused by North Korea’s stringent quarantine to shield itself against covid-19 (of which it still, fantastically, claims to have no cases). Whatever the motives for the escalation, it must be hoped that when it comes to blowing things up, the North will continue to restrict itself to empty buildings.