North Korea has warned South Korea with possible military action after threatening to completely sever inter-Korean relations. “I think it is about time that we completely broke with the South Korean things (authorities),” Kim Yo Jong, the first vice department director of the North Korean Workers’ Party, said in a statement on Saturday. “I have instructed all departments related to enemy affairs to decisively take the next-stage action.” Kim went further to mention the destruction of the inter-Korean liaison office (in the North) and possible military attack. The South Korean presidential office Cheong Wa Dae held an emergency standing committee meeting of the National Security Council but failed to issue any warning against Pyongyang.
The North has been making the provocative remarks citing that propaganda leaflets flown to the North by North Korean defectors in the South have defamed the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But such rhetoric would be just an excuse and there should be more complex reasons than that. Pyongyang has been blindly seeking talks with Washington with expectations for a big deal in nuclear talks, but U.S. President Donald Trump has been demanding Pyongyang to first implement sincere efforts to denuclearize the nation. President Trump has been accepting top-down negotiations, but as his reelection has become more difficult to predict due to the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-racism protests in the U.S., Pyongyang is apparently becoming increasingly jittery of the situation.
Watchers say if the North fails to generate any outcome in its relations with the U.S. during President Trump’s term in office amid growing economic hardships the Stalinist country faces due to international sanctions, Pyongyang would fear that it may not be able to ensure even the regime’s safety, which in turn is driving Kim Jong Un to resort to more provocative brinkmanship measures.
In the face of Pyongyang’s pressure, the South Korean government and the ruling party have said Seoul will enact law banning the dissemination of propaganda leaflets, while provincial governments are even moving to crack down on North Korean defectors. The South Korean authorities are constantly taking submissive attitude. The presidential office hasn’t assembled a National Security Council’s standing committee meeting, failing to display any response, and Pyongyang has further upped the ante against Seoul. Fundamentally, the South Korean government has volunteered to become the arbitrator for the North Korean nuclear issues. Seoul has been neither able to lift sanctions that Pyongyang has wanted, nor made any progress in the North’s denuclearization. As a result neither Pyongyang nor Washington wants to engage with Seoul, a situation that needs renewed attention to resolve. It is also doubtful whether the South Korean government, which is not being trusted by both Pyongyang and Washington, has the capability to manage the most significant turning point in inter-Korean relations since the Panmunjom Declaration in 2018. The inter-Korean relationship, which will mark the 20th anniversary of the June 15 Joint Declaration this year, is increasingly backpedalling, but the South Korean government seems to be helpless at best.
What Pyongyang fear the most would be unified response by the South Korea-U.S. alliance, and decisive combat readiness to counter the North’s any military action. Conflict between Washington and Beijing is intensifying, while Seoul-Washington ties have seen looming cracks due to Washington’s demand for more defense cost sharing by Seoul. Amid rapidly shifting international order, with President Trump seeking to stop Washington from interfering in international affairs to resolve military conflict in remote countries, the Moon Jae-in administration should clearly inform the South Korean people how it will relieve the public’s anxiety in the face of Pyongyang’s looming provocations. Pyongyang’s threatening, which is meant to blame the South for its own problems, is ridiculous enough, but Seoul should also keep in mind that its response seemingly intended to avoid Pyongyang’s criticism, could not only add to the public’s anxiety but have significantly negative impact on the Korean economy including foreign investment.