New Tensions on the Korea Peninsula

Main Image Credit The president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in. Courtesy of Janne Wittoeck/Flickr.

North Korea’s harsh response to an incident on its border with South Korea may signify a move away from dialogue, as well as cementing the hold of the Kim dynasty.

Tensions between North and South Korea are rising once again. North Korea has responded furiously to the distribution of leaflets by South Korea across the demilitarised zone which criticised the Kim regime. Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, issued an initial statement condemning this as a ‘hostile action’ which allegedly breached the Panmunjom Declaration and the inter-Korean agreement in the military domain – the two agreements signed by the North and South in 2018 aimed at fostering better relations and reducing military tension – along with a warning of the consequences for such an activity.  

Words were quickly translated into action, and Pyongyang cut phone ties with Seoul and blew up the inter-Korean liaison offices in Kaesong ending the most positive and enduring outcomes from the engagement efforts undertaken since 2018. There is no doubt that North Korea’s response to the leafletting is a highly orchestrated attempt to create a political incident which it can use as leverage. It is becoming clear that Pyongyang has used the event as cover to begin lifting the veil on its ‘post-engagement’ approach to South Korea and has sought to test South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s commitment to inter-Korean engagement. The incident also appears to be providing a platform for the continued elevation of Kim Yo Jong within the regime.

Pyongyang’s Future Strategy

The episode provides us with a glimpse into how North Korea proposes to conduct its relationship with South Korea after a period of renewed engagement. Although many of the opportunities for improved relations have diminished, if not vanished, North Korea itself had been relatively quiet on the matter; the bulk of state media reports in the first part of this year have focused on domestic issues.

But the leafletting incident is now being used as a springboard from which Pyongyang can reveal at least some elements of its future strategy. It now appears that keeping the door open for improved inter-Korean relations is not a top Pyongyang policy priority. Instead, North Korea has been clear that patience has been lost with what it claims has been a long wait for Seoul to implement improvements to North–South relations; it now claims that Seoul will experience a ‘regretful and painful’ time.

This bout of criticism towards South Korea was clearly highly orchestrated. It was not a knee jerk reaction, nor can it be seen as an effort to gain time in order to develop an appropriate response. Instead, Kim Yo Jong’s statement, the destruction of the liaison office and phone line suggests that North Korea merely used this event as the basis for its new approach to South Korea.

It is also an opportunity to test President Moon Jae-In’s commitment to his inter-Korean engagement policy, and his alliance commitments to the US. His administration responded in a conciliatory fashion to the pressure from Pyongyang. Almost as quickly as the North made good on Kim Yo Jong’s threats, the Moon administration condemned the leafleting activities and has taken steps to prosecute the activist groups responsible.

This is not the first time the Moon appears to have given priority to engagement with North Korea over the protection of civil liberties, human rights and democracy at home. Last year, Moon faced significant criticism for deporting two North Korean sailors back to the North, reportedly in breach of international law.

By suggesting in her statement that South Korea cannot hide behind excuses of free speech if it wants to avoid a deterioration in relations, Kim Yo Jong goaded Moon in to protecting his engagement strategy at a high cost. The outcome may prompt Pyongyang elites into believing they can continue to push boundaries against Seoul, without losing the option of inter-Korean cooperation.

The Rise of Kim Yo Jong

The incident has also been used to continue elevating Kim Yo Jong’s stature within the regime, with her most recent articles being used to craft a ‘rally around the flag’ effect domestically and portray her as a potential key figure in inter-Korean relations.

Her prominence within the regime has increased since 2018, when she was part of the North Korean delegation that attended the PyeongChang Winter Olympics – the event that became symbol of the initiation of renewed engagement between the two Koreas. She was also present in both the Singapore and Hanoi meetings between Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump.

Earlier this year, Kim Yo Jong also published her first commentaries in KCNA, the North Korean official news agency, in which she heavily criticised the South Korean Presidential office and also expressed her ‘personal opinion’ on bilateral relations between North Korea and US. State media confirmed Kim Yo Jong’s official title as Vice-Department Director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee, but recent articles have also suggested that she is working closely with the United Front Department (UFD) – a branch of the party involved in inter-Korean policy – with the UFD potentially taking direction from Kim Yo Jong.

Of course, it is also possible to make a reverse argument, namely that Ms Kim’s prominence in this episode does not so much represent her elevation in stature and responsibilities within the regime, but more the demotion of inter-Korean relations as a policy priority for Pyongyang. However, this seems less likely as relations with the South – either positive or negative – remain a key area of foreign policy for North Korea, and in the context of her increasing visibility in state media, it seems obvious that her authority is growing.

Disputes of these kind have often been used in the past to demonstrate North Korea’s own agency in conducting it external relations, as well as reminding outsiders of just how calculating the regime is. Unfortunately, on this occasion the ratcheting of tensions has been used to demonstrate North Korea’s intentions to diminish opportunities for inter-Korean dialogue and strengthen the Kim dynasty from within.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Cristina Varriale

Research Fellow

Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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