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Explainer: What's going on between North and South Korea and why are tensions rising again now?

Analysts say recent tensions come from North Korea’s desire to have sanctions eased.

Flags of North Korea, rear, and South Korea, front, flutter in the wind respectively at border area
Flags of North Korea, rear, and South Korea, front, flutter in the wind respectively at border area
Image: Seo Myung-gon/PA Images

THE SOUTH KOREAN government’s point man for relations with the North resigned today. 

President Moon Jae-in accepted the resignation of Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, and warned that his government will “no longer tolerate” the beahviour of North Korea.

Kim said he takes responsibility for the worsening of relations between the two countries in recent weeks, while North Korea has kept up its tough rhetoric with its latest pronouncements.

Its official KCNA news agency blamed the South for the rising tensions, saying “all measures taken by us are punishments” that South Korea “deserves for their crimes”. 

Recent evens culminated in North Korea blowing up an inter-Korean liaison office just north of the border on Tuesday. 

So what’s been going on in recent weeks on the Korean peninsula? Why are tensions flaring up now?

Sanctions

Inter-Korean relations had already been in deep freeze for months, following the collapse of a summit in Hanoi between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump late last year.

That meeting foundered on what the nuclear-armed North would be willing to give up in exchange for a loosening of sanctions. Current sanctions levelled against North Korea limit crude oil imports and textile, food and electrical exports to a number of countries.

There had been speculation in April that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un had been suffering from ill health before he made his first public appearance in weeks back at the start of May

download (33) Rumours had claimed Kim Jong-un was in ill health. Source: PA Images

On 3 May – the very next day – North Korea fired gunshots towards the South in the demilitarised zone dividing the two nations, which prompted return fire from South Korean troops.

Easing military tensions on their border was one of the agreements reached between Kim and the South’s President Moon Jae-in at a summit in Pyongyang in September 2018, but that hadn’t been acted upon. 

Things began to ramp up then at the beginning of this month, when North Korea said it was severing all official communication links with Seoul

It had issued a series of vitriolic statements denouncing the apparent sending of anti-Pynongyang leaflets over the border by people in the South. 

They repeatedly denounced defectors who send leaflets to the North by balloon and bottle criticising Kim over his weapons programmes and human rights abuses. It called them “disgusting riff-raff” and accused Seoul of complicity in their actions.

“This has driven the inter-Korean relations into a catastrophe,” KCNA said, describing Seoul as an “enemy”.

“We have reached a conclusion that there is no need to sit face to face with the south Korean authorities and there is no issue to discuss with them.”

Analysts have said the move is aimed at creating a crisis on the peninsula, as the North remains fuming at the level of sanctions against it. 

South Korea’s president Moon had initially brokered dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington, but the North now blames him for not persuading the US to relax sanctions. 

“Internally, North Korea is deeply disappointed in Moon and appears determined to end inter-Korean ties,” said Kim Keun-sik, professor of political science at Kyungnam University.

“By doing so, it is sending a message in its brinkmanship tactics to Trump that he should resume talks or lift economic sanctions as it has demanded so long.”

Ostensibly, this month’s developments have been triggered by the anti-Pyongyang leaflets sent by defectors, but that is actually a longstanding practice.

“This is a staged provocation cycle rather than a one-off response,” said North Korea specialist Leif-Eric Easley of Ewha University.

“Pyongyang is damaging inter-Korean relations to ratchet up pressure in search of international concessions,” he added. “The decision to pressure Seoul is a strategy, not a tactic.”

Escalation

The most significant event so far has been the North blowing up a liaison office with the South. 

Equally, while the symbolism of Tuesday’s destruction of the liaison office was the strongest provocation so far, the building it blew up had not been used for months, was unoccupied, and – crucially – lay on its side of the border.

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The General Staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) said it is reviewing a ruling party recommendation to advance into unspecified border areas that had been demilitarised under agreements with the South, which would “turn the front line into a fortress”.

The powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – Kim Yo-jong – days earlier said the North would demolish the “useless” inter-Korean liaison office in the border town of Kaesong and that she would leave it to the military to come up with the next step of retaliation against the “enemy” South.

But, similarly, the joint project locations where it declared it would bolster its military presence have been inactive for years.

So, while North Korea is undoubtedly ratcheting up tensions, the measures taken so far are not as extreme and significant as they might appear according to analysts. 

Whether its gambit of escalating tensions will convince the international community to ease sanctions remains to be seen. 

While South Korea has initially sought to downplay the situation, it appears its patience may be wearing thin. 

In a statement from the president on Wednesday, it criticised North Korean leader Kim’s sister, calling some of her remarks “senseless” and “very rude”. 

President Moon has said the South will “no longer tolerate” the North’s unreasonable behaviour. While the minister in charge of unification in South Korea has now resigned, it does not signal a softened stance or a willingness to cede any ground at this time. 

koreas-tensions Former South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul Source: Lee Jin-man/PA Images

In his resignation statement, Kim Yeon-chul expressed hope that his departure “will be a chance to pause for a bit”.

“One can never overcome hatred with hatred,” he told reporters, adding: “There are many wounds to heal in inter-Korean relations… We have to stop here.”

With reporting from AFP

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Sean Murray

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