In the contemporary world, North Korea is probably the only country that remains an enigma and unaffected by the geopolitical and geostrategic churnings taking place with breathtaking rapidity outside its geographical boundary. Barring China, it has effectively no friend or admirer though it does maintain diplomatic relations with many countries.
Even with its immediate neighbour, the severed southern wing of what once was a unified Peninsula, it has a love-hate relationship, constantly engaged in friction. Being ideologically poles apart with no sign of compromise whatsoever, the gulf in the economic domain has widened so much that it is unlikely to be bridged even if both unify one day, which is what they aspire on their own terms.
Different Presidents in South Korea at different times have adopted either hardline or accommodative and liberal approaches towards its northern neighbour. No conciliatory approach has worked, though several modalities were formulated as the North continued to renege soon after having agreed to such mechanism seeking peace one after another. Even hardline measures made no impact on the North Korean regimes.
The latest in this narrative is the demolition of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office by North Korea in the border town of Kaesong industrial complex on 16 June, built with much fanfare in 2018, thereby killing the chicken that was laying the golden eggs. The provocation for doing so was preceded by a warning against South Korea that sheltered defectors who continued to send propaganda leaflets and floated balloons inside North Korea’s territory with messages critical of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and human rights abuses.
The four-storey structure was closed since January 2020 over fears of the novel coronavirus. The large explosion that reduced the structure to rubble also partially damaged the neighbouring 15-storey high-rise residential facility that housed officials from both sides working at the liaison office. The facility was effectively working as an embassy and its destruction is a major setback to efforts assiduously pursued by the liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in who was trying his best to draw the North into cooperation.
North Korea never tolerates anything derogatory of its leader as a personality cult of a demi-god has been built by the regime since the time of its foundation by Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, when the peninsula was divided on ideological grounds 70 years ago. No wonder the state-controlled KCNA spewed venom saying that the building was blown up to punish “human scum and those, who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes”. North Korea refers to defectors as “human scum”.
Established in 2018 as part of a series of projects aimed at reducing tensions between the two Koreas and also to manage operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint venture between the two Koreas that was suspended in 2016 amid disagreement over North’s nuclear and missile programmes and when South Korea had a hardliner President. In 2018, when the office was reopened, South Korea spent $8.6 million to renovate.
What was behind this demolition and what does North Korea aim to achieve from such an act? As expected, news of the demolition sent alarm and shockwaves around the world. The demolition coming soon after the 20th anniversary of the first-ever inter- Korean summit, was a stark reminder of how inter-Korean relations are too complex and fragile, and how the initiatives renewed in 2018 had started losing its salience in less than two years since restarted.
Though Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong, the next most powerful to Kim in the country, had warned about the activities of the defectors in strong language, which unless stopped forthwith could result in severe consequences. With this, Kim Jong-un has again provoked a crisis when there was no real reason. So, what can we expect next from Kim? In the coming days and months, it would not be surprising if Kim starts provocative military exercises, live firing of artillery shells towards South Korean territory or even take steps to reverse the accomplishment of the September 2018 inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement.
Though the strategic purpose behind these provocations would remain unclear “Pyongyang may be seeking to create a crisis to encourage South Korean President Moon Jae-in, now with a super-majority in parliament following the April mid-term elections, to push forward with inter-Korean economic co-operation projects”, observes Ankit Panda of Diplomat magazine.
Also, Kim might use this strategy to build further legitimacy for his sister, possibly also linked to his suspected failing health, so that there is no threat to the regime’s continuity. There could be other reasons one can speculate upon. It is possible that Kim might be trying to exert pressure on Moon to reach out to Trump again and then draw him to the table for talks instead of testing a longrange missile or conducting another nuclear test, thereby “create a crisis as a prelude to justifying emergency talks”, opines Professor Andray Abrahamian of George Mason University, Korea.
The fact that Kim’s sister was at the centre for taking these decisions might reflect her credentials “as someone who can be tough on the North Korea’s enemies”. In fact, Kim Yo-jong has remained in the forefront, starting from travelling to Seoul for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics and shaking hands with Moon to her association with the North-South rapprochement in 2018, thereby conveying the message both to the domestic and foreign audience about her authority.
In the meantime, while South Korea’s Unification Ministry has vowed to stop North Korean defectors from sending anti- Pyongyang leaflets and other materials such as rice in plastic bottles, dollar bills, etc to North Korea’s border areas amid a spike in cross-border tension that caused the shocking demolition of the joint liaison office, Pyongyang is ready to respond and prepare for sending “leaflet bombs of justice” across the inter-Korean border in a bid to “terrorise” the South as a retaliation against Seoul’s failure to stop activists from sending anti-regime leaflets to the North. The North Korean military is also preparing to redeploy troops in the DMZ and support the scattering of leaflets into the South. Thus, there is no easing of tensions in the horizon.
(The writer is Lok Sabha Research Fellow and Governing Council Member, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi)