North Korea: Kim Jong Un Suspended Military Retaliation Against South Korea

June 23, 2020 Updated: June 24, 2020

SEOUL, South KoreaNorth Korea said on June 24 that leader Kim Jong Un suspended a planned military retaliation against South Korea.

Last week, the North had declared relations with the South as fully ruptured, destroyed an inter-Korean liaison office in its territory and threatened unspecified military action to censure Seoul for a lack of progress in bilateral cooperation and for activists floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.

Analysts say North Korea, after weeks of deliberately raising tensions, may be pulling away just enough to make room for South Korean concessions.

Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said Kim presided by video conference over a meeting on June 23 of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Military Commission, which decided to postpone plans for military action against the South brought up by the North’s military leaders.

KCNA didn’t specify why the decision was made. It said other discussions included bolstering the country’s “war deterrent.”

Yoh Sang-key, spokesman of South Korea’s Unification Ministry, said Seoul was “closely reviewing” the North’s report but didn’t further elaborate.

Yoh also said it was the first report in state media of Kim holding a video conferencing meeting, but he didn’t provide a specific answer when asked whether that would have something to do with the pandemic.

The North says there hasn’t been a single COVID-19 case on its territory, but the claim is questioned by outside experts.

Kim Dong-yub, an analyst from Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said it’s likely that the North is waiting for further action from the South to salvage ties from what it sees as a position of strength, rather than softening its stance on its rival.

“What’s clear is that the North said (the military action) was postponed, not canceled,” said Kim, a former South Korean military official who participated in inter-Korean military negotiations.

Other experts say the North would be seeking something major from the South, possibly a commitment to resume operations at a shuttered joint factory park in Kaesong, which was where the liaison office was located, or restart South Korean tours to the North’s Diamond Mountain resort. Those steps are prohibited by the international sanctions against the North over its nuclear weapons program.

The public face of the North’s recent bashing of the South has been Kim Yo Jong, the sister of leader Kim Jong Un, who has been confirmed as his top official on inter-Korean affairs. Issuing harsh statements through state media, she had said the North’s demolishing of the liaison office would be just the first in a series of retaliatory action against the “enemy” South and that she would leave it to the North’s military to come up with the next steps.

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Smoke rises in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, seen from Paju, South Korea, on June 16, 2020. (Yonhap via AP)
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This photo provided by the North Korean government shows the demolition of an inter-Korean liaison office building in Kaesong, North Korea, on June 16, 2020. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

The General Staff of the North’s military has said it would send troops to the mothballed inter-Korean cooperation sites in Kaesong and Diamond Mountain and restart military drills in frontline areas. Such steps would nullify a set of deals the Koreas reached during a flurry of diplomacy in 2018 that prohibited them from taking hostile action against each other.

Also condemning the South over North Korean refugees floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border, the North said June 22 it printed 12 million of its own propaganda leaflets to be dropped over the South in what would be its largest ever anti-Seoul leafleting campaign.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Kim’s decision to hold back military action would affect the country’s plans for leafleting. The North’s military had said it would open border areas on land and sea and provide protection for civilians involved in the leafleting campaigns.

The North has a history of dialing up pressure against the South when it fails to get what it wants from the United States. The North’s recent steps came after months of frustration over Seoul’s unwillingness to defy U.S.-led sanctions and restart the inter-Korean economic projects that would breathe life into its broken economy.

Nuclear negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington largely stalled after Kim’s second summit with President Donald Trump last year in Vietnam, where the Americans rejected North Korea’s demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

By Kim Tong-Hyung