North and South Korea RELATIONS

North Korea blew up the joint liaison office with South Korea in Kaesong, an industrial area on its side of the border, becoming one of the two countries’ most damaging conflicts without ever going to war. The collapse of the joint liaison office followed a growing breakdown of ties between Pyongyang and Seoul, which came just hours after Pyongyang had threatened with military action at the border with South Korea.

Tensions between the two countries had increased since last week, after Pyongyang took offence to South Korean activists and defectors sending anti-North Korean propaganda leaflets, rice and bibles using ballons across the border into North Korean territory, and cut off communication with Seoul. Experts believe that these movements follow the frustrations of North Korea over the inability of South Korea to revive inter-Korean economic projects that, under US pressure, had benefited Pyongyang, along with UN sanctions.

The liaison office was set up in Kaesong in 2018 to facilitate communication between North Korea and South Korea. Following the demolition of the office, North Korean state media outlet KCNA released a statement saying the office had been “tragically ruined with a terrific explosion”.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in called for an urgent national security meeting following the demolition. The country’s Unification Ministry called the incident “a senseless act”, one that had “destroyed the hopes of those who wished for peace on the Korean Peninsula”.The South Korean government said they would “respond strongly” if the situation were to worsen but did not elaborate on how it would retaliate. The demolition occurred just days after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong had threatened to destroy the liaison office.

North Korea and South Korea jointly established a liaison office in North Korea’s Kaesong, in 2003. The Kaesong Industrial Complex is a joint industrial zone where both North Koreans and South Koreans operate and run  factories. Approximately 120 factories operated in this industrial zone at its height, with more than 50,000 North Korean employees and several hundred managers, according to a BBC report. Pyongyang had threatened to close this liaison office last week and had cut off his lines of communication with Seoul.

Following the demolition of the liaison office, North Korean state media KCNA announced that Pyongyang would be sending troops in demilitarised areas, including in the Kaesong industrial zone. The KCNA added that North Korea would be adding artillery units along the border with South Korea for reinforcement and North Korean police posts that had been withdrawn when relations had improved between the two countries would now be instituted once again.

Observers say North Korea has been the most provocative by doing these actions in the last few years. During the last few years, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has made efforts to improve relations with Pyongyang. Researchers say that such provocations may have happened because Pyongyang aims to compel Seoul to make it more concessions that will be economically favorable to North Korea, which has been hit hard by sanctions. Although it is not clear how COVID-19 has affected North Korea, experts believe it is likely that the country has not escaped unscathed, particularly in the context of how China is the main trading partner for North Korea.