Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened Seoul with threats of military action at the Korean border, which has been empty since January due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, a joint liaison office building shared with South Korea near North Korea’s border town of Kaesong was recently demolished following orders from Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
In a statement, South Korea stated it would “respond strongly” if the North continues to make the situation worse. Pyongyang’s actions are likely to further complicate relations with Seoul, and they will dampen any chance of peace on the Korean peninsula in the near future.
The reason why tensions between North and South Korea have been escalating for weeks is because defector groups in the South have been sending propaganda across the border.
The North is Looking for an Excuse to Attack the South
However, it is likely that Pyongyang is using the defector incidents as an excuse to attack Seoul. The North Korean leader is angry at the South for failing to challenge the US’s insistence that strict sanctions should remain in place and for not pursuing inter-Korean projects that would have breached both US and UN sanctions.
In 2003, the town became home to the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which employed hundreds of South Korean managers and 50,000 North Koreans in 120 factories. Considering South Korean President Moon Jae-in has staked his political reputation on improving relations between the North and the South, the Kaesong demolition represents a devastating blow to his foreign policy.
The failed summit between Washington and Pyongyang in March 2019 caused the latter to withdraw from the inter-Korean liaison office there.
The North and South Could Take Further Action
This scenario has the potential to force both the North and the South into taking further military action. Both sides of the Korean peninsular are technically still at war because no peace agreement was signed following the end of the Korean War in 1953. But the situation could potentially deteriorate if Pyongyang orders troops to enter the demilitarized zone, as Seoul has already warned it would react if the North’s actions continue to get out of hand.
US President Donald Trump’s chances of securing a peace deal in Korea are diminishing as the November election fast approaches, but Washington can still play a pivotal role in preventing both the North and the South from edging closer towards war.
It is clear that US sanctions are a bone of contention for North Korea. In October 2019, Trump and Jong-un met in Stockholm, Sweden, for in-depth talks. Despite the US State Department’s insistence that the discussions were good, the North Korean leader demanded that Washington approach negotiations “with a new method of calculation.” The North Korean Foreign Ministry added that Pyongyang would not hold ‘such sickening negotiations’ until the US withdraws its ‘hostile policy.’
The Hanoi summit in February also ended in disaster because Trump would not compromise on US sanctions.
Time to Return to the Negotiating Table
Following the Kaesong demolition, the Trump administration is in a difficult position. The US President has insisted he does not want his country to enter into endless conflicts, but he should not abandon Seoul if Pyongyang intimidates its neighbor with further military action.
Equally, if US sanctions are truly complicating relations between the North and the South, Trump must lift some of them as long as Jong-un can guarantee he will close some nuclear facilities.
This is the opportune moment for China to intervene, too. Although tensions remain high between Beijing and Washington, it is unlikely that Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to see a potential conflict on his doorstep. At some stage the Chinese Government must be persuaded to slash its payments to Pyongyang unless the latter embraces denuclearization.
Both the US and China can agree that another Korean War is in neither side’s best interests, but both countries will make no progress on this issue until they can find a way forward. South Korea has given no indication yet that it will abandon its support for US sanctions against the North, and this could be Jong-un’s excuse to worsen relations with Jae-in. Either way, Trump and the North Korean leader need to return to the negotiating table and thrash out a compromise before this crisis worsens.