Kim Freezes Military Moves Against South Korea in Latest U-Turn
Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, arrives at the railway station, for his departure to North Korea, in Vladivostok, Russia. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

Kim Freezes Military Moves Against South Korea in Latest U-Turn

Kim Jong Un ordered the suspension of military actions against South Korea, a move that could ease tensions after North Korea blew up a liaison office built by Seoul and warned of further provocations.

Kim “took stock of the prevailing situation and suspended the military action plans against the south” during a military commission meeting for his ruling Worker’s Party of Korea, the official Korean Central News Agency said Wednesday, without elaborating. The report was published the day before the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War in 1950, a milestone that had prompted speculation about further escalation by Pyongyang.

Meanwhile, South Korea detected signs that North Korea was removing about 10 loudspeakers intended for propaganda broadcasts along border, the Yonhap News Agency reported, citing unidentified government officials. The speakers were only recently reinstalled amid tensions between the two sides. North Korean media outlets also removed several anti-Seoul propaganda articles from their websites on Wednesday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.

Kim’s regime last week threatened to send troops back into disarmed areas near the border with South Korea and bring back operations at 10 front-line guard posts that were shut down as part of an agreement with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The liaison office in the North Korean border city of Kaesong was the most concrete achievement from a series of summits between the two Korean leaders in 2018 before it was “tragically ruined with a terrific explosion,” as KCNA announced.

“It’s loosening the choke hold just enough for the South to breathe a short sigh of relief,” said Soo Kim, a Rand Corp. policy analyst. “But I would not read this as North Korea’s about-face from its continued trajectory of pressuring the South.”

While Kim left the door open for more provocations by suspending, and not canceling, military action, his regime has climbed down from similar warnings before. In December, a top cadre warned the Trump administration of a “Christmas present” after demanding concessions in nuclear talks, but North Korea didn’t deliver on that threat. In 2017, North Korea warned of a strike against the U.S. territory of Guam that never materialized.

This month, North Korea ordered its troops into Kaesong, which is also home to a deserted inter-Korean industrial complex -- as well as the Mount Kumgang tourist area, another symbolic joint project that involved both nations. In recent days, it has looked to send millions of leaflets into its neighbor denouncing Moon’s government, in retaliation against similar messages lofted north of the border by North Korean defectors.

The anti-Kim leaflets prompted the leader’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, to issue an unusual statement saying that it was “high time” to break ties with South Korea and North Korea subsequently blew up the $15 million liaison office. Moon -- a long-time proponent of peace -- criticized the action, while reaffirming his support for restoring economic ties with his country’s rival.

Moon has found himself squeezed between North Korea’s demands to ease up on sanctions squeezing its paltry economy with more hawkish views in the Trump administration backing a maximum pressure campaign to force Kim to give up his nuclear weapons. A North Korea official dismissed the deals signed between Moon and Kim Jong Un as “scrap paper,” describing the South Korean president as the “chief culprit” for their failure.

Although Kim Jong Un has not been nearly as critical as his younger sister, he has shown increasing frustration with President Donald Trump. The U.S. president has refused to relax sanctions after three face-to-face meetings with Kim failed to produced what they U.S. side viewed as an acceptable plan to scale back North Korea’s nuclear program.

Kim Freezes Military Moves Against South Korea in Latest U-Turn

The Kim regime has a big incentive to keep tensions from getting out of control and prompting more international sanctions. North Korea’s economy faces fresh hardships because of borders being shut because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“North Korea made a provocation out of pyrotechnics, something that literally made a big bang and heightened the perception of tensions, but didn’t push things so far that Pyongyang couldn’t later gain leverage in the process of de-escalating and negotiating a resolution,” said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. diplomat who specialized in Korean Peninsula issues.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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