Tensions on the Korean peninsula are on the rise as North Korea is reasserting an aggressive military posture — cutting hotline communications, blowing up a liaison office and issuing threats to send armed soldiers into guard posts along the Demilitarized Zone.
The increased military actions come at 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War. The North’s latest ratcheting-up of tensions went beyond the two Koreas, to include threats to resume long-range missile testing and hints at restarting nuclear weapons testing.
On Thursday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said during a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the start of the war.
“We want peace. But we will respond resolutely to anyone who threatens our people’s safety or lives,” he said.
“We have defense capabilities strong enough to deny any provocation, from any direction.”
The new tensions have renewed calls for large-scale joint military exercises between the U.S. and Seoul that were suspended over the last few years. The former top U.S. commander in Korea said last week that resuming large-scale military exercises would send a clear signal to Pyongyang that these actions and new threats to test long-range missiles and nuclear weapons were beyond the pale.
Speaking in a Center for Strategic and International Studies online forum, retired Army Gen. Vincent Brooks said that would send a message to North Korea that these exercises wouldn’t be a valid bargaining chip during negotiations going forward.
In addition, he said other immediate steps “to re-gain traction for negotiations” with North Korea over a host of peninsula and international issues include moving U.S. F-35s into Korea and making the presence of an American aircraft carrier strike group visibly known.
“We want to take these steps … to cause them to change their calculus,” he said.
Brooks, speaking the day after North Korea destroyed a liaison office building one mile from the border with South Korea, said the situation has been put in the hands of the North Korean army.
Wednesday, Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency released a video showing leader Kim Jong-un conducting a meeting of the military commission in which it agreed to shelve plans for further military action. What was being discussed, according to the agency, were “documents carrying the state measures for further bolstering the war deterrent of the country.”
Large-scale joint exercises between the U.S. and South Korea were suspended two years in the hopes that talks between the United States and North Korea would lead to Pyongyang ending its nuclear and missile testing programs and the denuclearization of the peninsula.
The negotiations have proven fruitless.
As in the past, Pyongyang’s reasoning behind these latest provocations “is to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington,” the three-panel members agreed in the forum examining the security situation on the peninsula as the 70th anniversary neared. The date also marks the second anniversary of the summit meeting between Kim and President Donald Trump.
Sue Mi Terry, a CSIS Korea specialist, said, “this is their history,” especially as elections near either in the United States, scheduled for November, or South Korea, scheduled for 2022. “It’s almost guaranteed that Kim will do something provocative.” She said it is very possible that Pyongyang will resume testing “long-range delivery systems, submarine-launched missiles” and possibly nuclear weapons as the American presidential election nears.
North Korea has continued testing shorter-range ballistic and cruise missiles.
Pyongyang’s destruction of the liaison office also was designed to show its frustration over President Moon Jae-in’s failure to deliver on relief from sanctions imposed by the United States and the U.N. Security on the peninsula “doesn’t look like its heading in a good direction,” Victor Cha, CSIS’ Korea chair, said.
While blowing up the liaison office was the most public, other provocative steps taken against the South recently include military practice strikes on the Blue House, South Korea’s executive mansion, Terry added.
But to deter further North Korean aggression, Cha said to “hit back where it hurts” and implement the new round of sanctions that also would hit Chinese banks and other commercial entities doing business with Pyongyang. He added it was important the U.N. and Washington “not cave in on these [new] sanctions” and allow Chinese smuggling of oil and other supplies to North Korea to go unpunished.
The sanctions also would be coming as the North’s economy is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now is the time “to align our response [diplomatically, economically and militarily] as much as possible” with Seoul’s to the North’s latest moves, Brooks added, and also keep Japan informed on what’s happening and possible responses.
What has changed in the dynamics of the latest escalation of tensions is the rise of Kim Yo-jong, the leader’s sister. She is not only a power in the North Korean Worker’s Party but also is the face of the regime in showing Pyongyang’s strength in this crisis.
“Clearly, there is a division of labor” between brother and sister. In the past “she extended the olive branch,” particularly toward Seoul, as demonstrated in the Olympics cooperation. She “is now using the hammer” of military threats, Cha added.
Brooks said, “it’s as if they [the North Korean Politburo] are building some bona fides for her” to take over if her brother is incapacitated or dies.
But North Korea hasn’t completed its turn back to more negotiations with Seoul or Washington.
A senior North Korean official, Kim Yong Choi, has been quoted in news reports after the military commission meeting as saying, “This may sound threatening but it wouldn’t be fun when our ‘suspension’ becomes ‘reconsideration'” of military moves along the Demilitarized Zone and new weapons testing.