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Korean Tensions: An Unexpected Pause in an Uncertain Time
Korean Tensions: An Unexpected Pause in an Uncertain Time
A view of an explosion of a joint liaison office with South Korea in border town Kaesong, North Korea in this picture supplied by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on June 16, 2020. KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Commentary / Asia

Korean Tensions: An Unexpected Pause in an Uncertain Time

On 24 June, Pyongyang abruptly stopped threats it had been making at Seoul for weeks, although the underpinnings of inter-Korean friction remain. Peninsular tensions could stay on simmer or escalate depending on how the parties manage an uncertain time before the U.S. election.

After weeks of ratcheting up tensions on the Korean peninsula, including lodging near-daily threats against South Korea in reaction to some of its citizens sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border, North Korea has decided to pause. On 24 June, North Korean state media reported that Kim Jong-un opted to defer plans to take certain military actions, after considering an unspecified “prevailing situation” during a virtual preliminary meeting of the Worker’s Party Central Military Commission over which he presided.

For now, one can only guess at the reasons for the sudden pause. Did reported U.S. B-52 bomber flyovers near Japan on 24 June, coupled with three U.S. aircraft carriers operating in the region, deter North Korea? Did Seoul or even Beijing make a backdoor deal with Pyongyang to provide aid in exchange for the pause? Did Kim feel that he had vented enough frustration about the leaflets and decide to pace himself until the U.S. presidential election? Or perhaps North Korea never intended to take the calibrated military actions it had threatened in the first place.

There is always the risk of miscalculation that could trigger an inadvertent and dangerous escalation.

Whatever the case may be, the reasons why North Korea escalated tensions have not dissipated. The regime remains frustrated, though it remains unclear how it will channel these feelings. Pyongyang may simply be waiting to see what Seoul and Washington do before deciding on its next move, keeping tensions simmering on the peninsula – for domestic political purposes and to gain leverage in any future negotiations – until after the U.S. election. Even so, and although Pyongyang’s threats and demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office on its side of the border on 16 June appear to have been undertaken mainly for their shock value, there is always the risk of miscalculation that could trigger an inadvertent and dangerous escalation. Pyongyang might also abruptly engage in confrontational actions during what appears to be a quiet time – something it has done in the past. Beijing, Seoul, Washington and other countries with an interest in stability on the Korean peninsula should be prepared for all these scenarios during this uncertain period.

Calibrated Threats and, Almost, a Leaflet War

On 17 June, North Korea’s military announced that it was studying plans to deploy soldiers and “firepower sub-units” to the Mount Kumgang tourism area and Kaesong industrial zone, restore guard posts at the demilitarised zone, deploy artillery units and troops to the “front lines” (near or around the border) and conduct exercises there, and provide military assistance for “scattering leaflets against the south”. Kim Jong-un’s influential sister, Kim Yo-jong, also threatened to scrap the 2018 inter-Korean military agreement to cease hostilities on land, air and sea.

A close look at these possible plans reveals that none would pose physical harm to South Korea. Arguably, Kim might have opted for a pause precisely because he concluded there was little to gain from moving forward with plans that he realised would have minimal impact. After all, the Mount Kumgang tours and Kaesong Industrial Complex have been shut down since 2008 and 2016, respectively. Remilitarising the demilitarised zone and sending military forces to the “front lines” would expose North Korean troop positions. Scattering fliers across South Korea would do no damage to people or property.

Pyongyang’s threatened leaflet war was expected to kick off around the 70th anniversary of the Korean War on 25 June. It was interrupted, however, by Korea’s rainy season and winds blowing from south to north that are common during the summer. (Early summer tends to be when South Korean activists and North Korean defectors float anti-Kim messages northward in balloons that also contain information about the outside world and democracy, while North Koreans typically send their propaganda fliers in the winter when wind currents blow south.) Pictures of the North Korean materials released by state media show a defaced image of South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Scribbling on the face of its leader was aiming for South Korea’s jugular in the eyes of the North, where doing the same to Chairman Kim would be viewed as an unforgivable insult.

North Korea’s declaration of a “leaflet war” against South Korea may seem silly to the outside world. But to Pyongyang, the information South Korean fliers convey, and the way in which they counter regime propaganda directed at the North’s people, are most threatening. In her 17 June statement, Kim’s sister said the South Korean bulletins “dared defame the dignity of our supreme leadership, our Chairman whom we hold most sacred as the central core, and mocked at all our people at the same time”.

Against this backdrop, the announcement of preparations to bombard South Korea with millions of paper fliers may have been intended primarily to boost morale at home and to shore up internal unity. While not necessarily a cause for concern in the South, the move likely would have been well received by North Korean elites who are Kim’s key constituents. To retain power, Kim needs to be attentive to domestic political objectives including maintaining regime legitimacy, diverting attention from the country’s domestic policy failures and satisfying his constituents.

Behind the Rage

North Korea’s justification for ramping up tensions was what it sees as broken promises and hostile acts by South Korea. According to North Korean media, Pyongyang rejected Seoul’s 15 June offer to send a special envoy to smooth over tensions, demanding actions rather than words. But behind the rage appears to be a North Korean leadership desperate to find solutions for the country’s economic difficulties.

Pyongyang’s proximate reason for threatening South Korea was the leaflets, which it saw as violating a prior commitment. The two Korean leaders had agreed in their 2018 Panmunjom Declaration to cease “as of May 1 this year … all hostile acts and eliminating their means, including broadcasting through loudspeakers and distribution of leaflets, in the areas along the Military Demarcation Line”. The Moon government ended loudspeaker broadcasts, but for two years has been unable to stop South Koreans from sending fliers. When Kim Yo-jong publicly demanded a legal ban on leaflets, the Moon government and ruling-party lawmakers vowed to prosecute and take legal action against activist groups. This response was met with harsh domestic and international criticism that such actions would violate South Koreans’ constitutional rights and democratic freedoms.

Pyongyang evidently judged Seoul’s promises insufficient, proceeding to demolish the inter-Korean liaison office. Destroying the liaison office was a symbolic and calculated move. The office was of no unique value to Kim – cross-border communications are possible without it – but it was the prized symbol of Moon’s engagement policy and cost South Korean taxpayers about 9.7 billion won ($8.6 million). It was not functioning properly due to strained relations, was vacant because of the pandemic, and was located in North Korean territory. Pyongyang knew the explosion would not invite retaliation as it was not an attack on South Korea.

At the core of recent threats and building destruction is the regime’s apparent frustration over its domestic difficulties.

Beyond the leaflets, at the core of recent threats and building destruction is the regime’s apparent frustration over its domestic difficulties. The North’s economic stagnation, which started with post-2016 international sanctions intended to pressure it to return to diplomatic negotiations and to dry up funding for its nuclear weapons program, was unexpectedly compounded by the pandemic. The pandemic has halted nearly all trade with China, which had been Pyongyang’s most trusted lifeline, enabling the regime until now to defy collapse in the face of famines, natural disasters, sanctions and other challenges.

The best way for the regime to divert attention from Kim’s performance at home is to deflect his constituents’ gaze outward. Placing blame on the virus itself could be harder: it would not fit the regime’s self-legitimising narrative, which holds sanctions responsible for the country’s economic woes, or match Pyongyang’s official position that COVID-19 has not infected any North Koreans. Moreover, Pyongyang may want to avoid possibly annoying Beijing, which might see blaming the virus as a way of subtly pointing to the trade slowdown with China as the source of North Korea’s economic difficulties. Instead, it is easier to take the traditional route of placing the onus on sanctions, and easier still to target South Korea than to take on the U.S., which holds the cards regarding North Korea’s future.

At the same time, North Korean statements for over a year, taken together, suggest that Pyongyang feels betrayed by Seoul’s confident assertions that it could persuade Washington to relax some sanctions and allow the beginning of cross-border economic projects. The September 2018 Pyongyang Joint Declaration between the two Korean leaders stipulates that Pyongyang was willing to dismantle nuclear facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex “as the United States takes corresponding measures in accordance with the spirit of the June 12 U.S.-DPRK Joint Statement” that resulted from the historic Singapore summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump. But five months later, Kim discovered at the follow-up summit in Hanoi that the Trump administration was not willing to trade the sanctions relief he was seeking for Yongbyon.

Against this backdrop, Kim is now increasing pressure on the South, implying (however fancifully) that Seoul could persuade Washington to lift sanctions by placing a higher priority on the pursuit of pan-Korean nationalism – something Moon has promised to do – even at the expense of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. North Korea might be taking a breather at the moment, but Moon is still faced with one of the most serious predicaments of his single-term presidency. His dream of inter-Korean rapprochement and peace is in crisis. Moon will try to please both Pyongyang and Washington unless one side or the other gives him no option but to choose. Maintaining this balance will not be politically easy, as Moon’s nationalist supporters want him to privilege inter-Korean ties over all else, especially because they blame Washington for soured Korean relations. It will bolster their case if Trump continues to pressure Seoul to pay more for hosting U.S. troops or makes a flippant remark that makes the quiet undercurrent of anti-American sentiment in South Korea erupt.

Tensions until November

On 24 June, Pyongyang stressed that it had merely suspended its military plans, and not cancelled them, warning that it could always “reconsider” the postponement. While the tone of the statement in Korean was subdued, it nevertheless raises the question of whether the world will witness a North Korean “October surprise” that would destabilise the peninsula in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election.

While that possibility cannot be excluded, North Korea’s interests might point it in a different direction. Pyongyang likely would prefer Trump’s re-election because the president has shown such personal interest in making a deal with Kim. This preference would presumably lead it to refrain from actions that would not only risk a harsh response from Washington but could also highlight that Trump’s negotiations with Kim have met with little success (notwithstanding his earlier boasts to the contrary) and confront him with a foreign policy crisis in advance of the November polls. Pyongyang will also likely be prudent enough to avoid any act that could result in South Korean injuries or casualties, since Seoul would almost certainly retaliate in kind. That said, there is always a risk of miscalculation.

Still, Pyongyang might take other provocative measures – including testing weapons, firing artillery or other shows of force. Steps like these are not always aimed at grabbing Washington’s attention. Often, Pyongyang is driven by domestic political objectives, military imperatives relating to perfection of its weaponry, or the desire to commemorate milestones such as the 75th anniversary of its Workers’ Party in October. Pyongyang might also take such actions to send a message – for example, to protest U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, including those scheduled for August, which Moon also promised to end in his 2018 agreement with Kim. In virtually all these cases, an overarching goal is to create divisions between the U.S. and its regional allies and maintain tensions on the Korean peninsula for leverage in any future negotiations, which seem unlikely to resume until after the U.S. election.

Washington and Seoul will need to engage in a delicate dance that avoids providing any pretext for North Korea to act out militarily, while sustaining readiness and deterrence.

Until then, Washington and Seoul will need to engage in a delicate dance that avoids providing any pretext for North Korea to act out militarily, while sustaining readiness and deterrence on the Korean peninsula and seeking opportunities to advance nuclear negotiations. In this spirit, the Trump administration should continue to express interest in diplomacy even as it and other governments continue to enforce UN sanctions. Countries with influence over North Korea and an interest in peninsular stability, starting with China, should continue to call on Pyongyang to refrain from escalation and instead engage in dialogue. Furthermore, if Pyongyang nevertheless takes potentially destabilising steps, Washington and Seoul should have a game plan for responding in a measured way; in particular, they should signal that they will beef up joint military drills if Pyongyang escalates.

Through these measures, the parties can serve their mutual interest in promoting peninsular and regional stability while managing the security situation during an uncertain time.

Kaesong Industrial Complex, 14 April 2015. CRISISGROUP
Report 300 / Asia

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