On Monday, North Korea blew up the joint liaison office with South Korea in Kaesong, an industrial township on its side of the border, becoming one of the most serious incidents to have occurred between the two countries, without them actually going to war. The demolition of the joint liaison office follows a recent deterioration in relations between Pyongyang and Seoul and occurred just hours after Pyongyang threatened to engage in military action at the border with South Korea.
Why did Pyongyang take this step?
Since the past week, tensions between the two countries had increased after Pyongyang objected to activists and defectors in South Korea sending anti-North Korean propaganda leaflets, rice and Bibles using balloons across the border into North Korean territory, and had cut off communication with Seoul. Experts believe that these moves come after North Korea’s frustrations at South Korea’s inability to revive inter-Korean economic projects that had been beneficial to Pyongyang, under pressure from the US, along with UN sanctions.
The liaison office was set up in Kaesong in 2018 to facilitate communication between North Korea and South Korea. Following the demolition of the office, North Korean state media outlet KCNA released a statement saying the office had been “tragically ruined with a terrific explosion”.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in called for an urgent national security meeting following the demolition. The country’s Unification Ministry called the incident “a senseless act”, one that had “destroyed the hopes of those who wished for peace on the Korean Peninsula”.
The South Korean government said they would “respond strongly” if the situation were to worsen but did not elaborate on how it would retaliate. The demolition occurred just days after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong had threatened to destroy the liaison office.
What is this liaison office?
In 2003, North Korea and South Korea jointly set up a liaison office at Kaesong in North Korea. The Kaesong Industrial Complex is a joint industrial zone where factories are operated and run by both North Koreans and South Koreans.
According to a BBC report, at its height, approximately 120 factories were operating in this industrial zone with more than 50,000 North Korean employees and several hundred managers.
Last week, Pyongyang had threatened to close this liaison office and had cut its lines of communication with Seoul.
What happened next?
Following the demolition of the liaison office, North Korean state media KCNA announced that Pyongyang would be deploying troops in demilitarised areas, including in the Kaesong industrial zone. The KCNA added that North Korea would be adding artillery units along the border with South Korea for reinforcement and North Korean police posts that had been withdrawn when relations had improved between the two countries would now be instituted once again.
Observers say that these actions by North Korea have been the most provocative in recent years. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has made efforts over the past few years to improve relations with Pyongyang. Experts believe these provocations may have occurred because Pyongyang is hoping to pressure Seoul into giving it more concessions that would be economically beneficial for North Korea that has been hit hard by sanctions. Although it is not clear how COVID-19 has impacted North Korea, experts believe it is likely that the country has not escaped unscathed, especially in context of how China is North Korea’s main trading partner.
Experts believe these actions, however provocative, are not severe enough for Seoul to contemplate military aggression in retaliation. Following the demolition, Reuters reported that the US was coordinating with South Korea. Hours after the incident, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian announced in a daily briefing that China hoped for peace on the Korean Peninsula, and did not mention the liaison office.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dimtry Peskov said: “We call for restraint from all the sides.”