North Korea Dials Up the Tension

Words, actions drive a stake in inter-Korean détente . . .

North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office yesterday and mobilized its troops along the border. By doing so, North Korea essentially walked away from the Panmunjom Declaration in which the two Koreas committed to greater engagement and peaceful reunification. North Korea had warned of these actions. Earlier this month, Pyongyang broke off communications with South Korea on the pretext of North Korean defectors floating balloons across the border bearing items meant to undermine North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. However, analysts believe that this is Pyongyang venting its frustration following more than a year of impasse in its negotiations with the U.S. Seoul, which played a central role in trying to improve U.S.-North Korea relations, has become the immediate target of Pyongyang’s wrath.

Build-up of frustrations . . .

These provocations – and South Korea’s stern response – mark a sharp turn from the cautious optimism surrounding the 2018 Singapore Summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, encouraged and facilitated by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Trump and Kim held a second summit in Hanoi in February 2019, but Kim walked away empty-handed, failing to secure relief on economic sanctions. Kim’s policy had hinged on delivering economic growth following the ease of sanctions. The failure to deliver on that promise – especially as his country celebrates the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party in October – most likely pushed Kim to shift his approach. COVID-19 has likely exacerbated North Korea’s already fragile economy, further painting Pyongyang into a corner.

What has changed?

Pyongyang has strategically ratcheted up tensions as a way to extract diplomatic and economic concessions in the past. The timing of such provocations avoided periods of instability in the U.S. to ensure Washington’s full attention. This time, however, Pyonyang’s hostilities are occurring while the U.S. is consumed with domestic crises. This aggression is also the first such episode in the context of rapidly deteriorating U.S.-China relations. June 25 marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Pyongyang (and others) could use the occasion to either calm tensions or escalate things further.