North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office building just north of the heavily armed border with South Korea on Tuesday. There was an intense increase of anger that acutely raised tensions on the Korean Peninsula and added pressure on Washington and Seoul amid deadlocked nuclear diplomacy. It came after North Korea issued a new threat to send North Korean troops into demilitarized border areas.
The demolition of the building, which was located on North Korean territory and had no South Koreans working there, has dramatic overtones. It’s likely the most provocative thing North Korea has done since it entered nuclear diplomacy in 2018 after a U.S.-North Korean standoff stoked fears of war. It will pose a serious setback to the efforts of liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in to restore inter-Korean engagement.
Statements from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said the nation destroyed the office in a “terrific explosion” because its “enraged people” were determined to “force (the) human scum and those, who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes,” apparently referring to North Korean defectors who for years have floated anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.
The North also said it cut off all government and military communication channels with the South while threatening to abandon bilateral peace agreements reached during North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s three summits with Moon in 2018.
According to CBS News, North Korea’s military threatened to move back into zones that were demilitarized under inter-Korean peace agreements, earlier Tuesday. The General Staff of the Korean People’s Army said it was reviewing a ruling party recommendation to advance into unspecified border areas that had been demilitarized under agreements with the South, which would “turn the front line into a fortress.”
“Our army is keeping a close watch on the current situation in which the (North-South) relations are turning worse and worse, and getting itself fully ready for providing a sure military guarantee to any external measures to be taken by the party and government,” said the KPA’s General Staff, which is akin to other countries’ Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The South Korean Ministry of National Defense issued a statement Tuesday saying the country’s military was maintaining “a firm readiness posture by closely monitoring the North Korean military’s movements around the clock, and is making every effort to prevent the military crisis from escalating due to stable management of the situation.”
“If North Korea carries out military provocation, the South Korean military will respond strongly,” the defense ministry added.
It invited foreign journalists to watch the detonation of its underground nuclear testing tunnels in 2018 and the demolition of a cooling tower at its main nuclear complex in 2008.
“It’s hard to see how such behavior will help the Kim regime get what it wants from the world, but clearly such images will be used for domestic propaganda,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
Inter-Korean relations have been strained since the breakdown of a second summit between Kim and Mr. Trump in Vietnam in early 2019. That summit fell apart because of disputes over how much sanctions should be lifted in return for Kim’s dismantling his main nuclear complex.