North Korea blows up joint liaison office, dramatically raising tensions with South

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North Korea on Tuesday blew up a liaison office it operated with South Korea, following through on a threat the Pyongyang regime issued days earlier as military tensions ramp up on the peninsula.

The joint facility in the North Korean border city of Kaesong — which the two sides opened in 2018 as a de facto embassy in the absence of formal diplomatic ties — was demolished shortly before 3 p.m. local time, the South’s Unification Ministry said.

Shortly afterward, as smoke billowed near the heavily defended frontier, North Korea’s state media said the liaison office was “tragically ruined with a terrific explosion.”

The destruction of a rare symbol of cross-border cooperation marked a sharp escalation from Pyongyang, which has sounded an increasingly aggressive tone toward South Korea in recent weeks amid a deadlock in diplomacy with the United States.

The nuclear-armed regime has been criticizing plans by defectors in the South to launch pro-democracy leaflets across the border that are intended to promote human rights and undermine the dictatorship of Kim Jong Un.

Demolishing the office was the act of “enraged people” retaliating against “human scum,” the Korean Central News Agency said, an apparent reference to the North Korean defectors. South Korea responded by reinforcing its military preparedness and surveillance, the semiofficial Yonhap News Agency reported.

Pyongyang’s warnings have coincided with the elevation of Kim Yo Jong, the leader’s younger sister, to a more public role in the regime, fueling speculation among political analysts that officials are readying her for higher office as she shakes down Seoul for concessions.

In a statement on Saturday, she labeled the liaison office “useless” and threatened to destroy it “before long,” adding that she had asked the military to prepare a “hostile action” to unnerve the South.

“If the South Korean authorities have now [the] capability and courage to carry out at once the thing they have failed to do for the past two years, why are the north-south relations still in stalemate?” she said.

The remarks demonstrated North Korea’s frustration over its inability to win relief from international sanctions after nuclear talks with the United States reached a stalemate following a failed summit with President Trump in early 2019.

With its trade still severely curtailed, North Korea has been unable to develop its economy, while South Korea’s center-left government has been unable to move forward with proposals for joint projects that might boost cooperation with its impoverished neighbor, such as cross-border railways.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul, said that North Korea is strategically pressuring the South to try to secure concessions on sanctions.

“It’s hard to see how such behavior will help the Kim regime get what it wants from the world, but clearly such images will be used for domestic propaganda,” Easley said. “So Seoul needs to impose additional costs demonstrating to Pyongyang that its threats are counterproductive.”

Earlier this month, North Korea shut down telephone hotlines with South Korea and threatened to scrap a military agreement unless Seoul stops the anti-Pyongyang activists. South Korea’s government said it would ban the activist groups from sending leaflets and asked the police last week to investigate them.

The liaison office had been temporarily closed since January due to concerns over the coronavirus outbreak. But its destruction is a setback for South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s efforts toward ending deep-rooted hostilities between the rival Koreas, which have remained technically at war since their 1953 armistice, and persuading Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons.

“North Korea should not cut off communications, create tensions and go back to the past era of confrontations,” Moon said in a speech on Monday.

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