Reuters reported on Tuesday that North Korea has blown up an inter-Korean liaison office building in Kaesong, a town located just north of the South Korean border. Due to the coronavirus, the office had been closed since January.
South Korean surveillance video appears to show that an adjacent building, used to house South Korean officials who staffed the liaison office, had partially collapsed during the explosion.
North Korean state media outlet KCNA reported, “The north-south joint liaison office was completely ruined on Tuesday. The relevant field of the DPRK put into practice the measure of completely destroying the north-south joint liaison office in the Kaesong Industrial zone in the wake of cutting off all communication ties between the north and the south, corresponding to the mindset of the enraged people to surely force human scum and those, who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes.” North Korea refers to defectors as “human scum”.
The hermit nation had previously threatened to retaliate “if North Korean defectors went ahead with a campaign to send propaganda leaflets into the North.”
The defectors have formed activist groups that “regularly sent flyers, together with food, $1 bills, mini radios and USB sticks containing South Korean dramas and news into North Korea, usually by balloon over the border or in bottles by river.”
South Korean officials, who have asked these groups to stop, are planning “legal action against two of defector groups, saying their actions fuelled cross-border tensions, posed risks to residents living near the border and caused environmental damage. But the groups have said they intend to push ahead with their planned campaign this week.”
According to Reuters, following the 2018 Summit between Moon and Un, “the liaison office was established in 2018 as part of a series of projects aimed at reducing tensions between the two Koreas.”
The building had originally been used as offices for managing operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint venture between the two Koreas that was suspended in 2016 amid disagreement over the North’s nuclear and missile programmes.
South Korea spent at least 9.78 billion won ($8.6 million) in 2018 to renovate the building, which stood as a gleaming blue glass structure in the otherwise drab industrial city.
When it was operating, South Koreans worked on the second floor and North Koreans on the fourth floor. The third floor held conference rooms for meetings between the two sides.
Following the blast, South Korea held an emergency meeting of its National Security Council. Deputy National Security Advisor Kim You-geun told reporters they would “sternly respond if North Korea continued to raise tensions.” Sounds a bit toothless to me.
He said the action “broke the expectations of all people who hope for the development of inter-Korean relations and lasting peace on the peninsula. We’re making clear that the North is entirely responsible for all the consequences this might cause.”
South Korean vice unification minister Suh Ho, who co-headed the liaison office, said this move was “unprecedented in inter-Korean relations” and a “nonsensical act that should have not happened”.
Ahead of the explosion, the situation had been tense for several days. Kim Yo Jong (sister of Kim Jong Un), a senior official of the ruling Workers’ Party, appears to be playing a larger role in the government’s affairs. On Saturday, state media reported that Kim “had ordered the department in charge of inter-Korean affairs to “decisively carry out the next action”. According to the report, she said, “Before long, a tragic scene of the useless north-south joint liaison office completely collapsed would be seen”.
On Monday, Moon Jae-In called on North Korea to honor the 2018 peace agreement and to “return to dialogue.”
Earlier on Tuesday, North Korean state media quoted the military as saying it had been studying an “action plan” to re-enter zones that had been demilitarized under the 2018 inter-Korean pact and “turn the front line into a fortress”.
South Korea’s defence ministry called for North Korea to abide by the 2018 agreement, under which both sides’ militaries vowed to cease “all hostile acts” and dismantled a number of structures along the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone between the two countries.
Reclusive North Korea, whose nuclear and missile programmes are the subject of stalled talks with the United States, and the democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a treaty.
Tension has been rising over recent days with the North threatening to cut ties with the South and retaliate over the propaganda leaflets, which carry messages critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including on human rights.
A South Korean military source told Reuters that there had been signs North Korea was going ahead with the demolition earlier in the day, and South Korean military officials watched live surveillance imagery as the building was blown up.
North Korea’s decision to blow up this building delivers a serious blow to the fragile renewal of diplomatic relations between the two countries.