In February 2018, Kim Yo Jong was the friendly face of North Korea, smiling and waving as he joined the crowd in South Korea at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
The two Koreas entered the stadium together at the opening ceremony and presented a joint women’s ice hockey team. Kim was not only the first member of the Northern ruling family to visit the South, but also shook hands with President Moon Jae-in. Relationships were meant to improve.
This month, however, it was Kim, the country’s leader’s younger sister Kim Jong Un, who was repeatedly quoted in bellicose warnings directed at South Korea, apparently about the flyers floating across the border or along the river by defector groups, but really about the North’s growing frustration over Seoul’s failure to deliver on promises of cooperation or to convince the United States to ease crippling economic sanctions.
The events were a “manufactured crisis,” said Ramón Pacheco Pardo, an international relations reader at King’s College London and an expert on the two Korean peninsula.
On Wednesday, the eve of the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, state media reported that Kim Jong Un had decided to suspend military actions that his sister had threatened.
“North Korea feels that it has not received the concessions it was seeking from South Korea and the United States at the summits in recent years,” Pacheco Pardo told Al Jazeera. “Rising tensions are a sign of displeasure at what happened and that something different is needed.”
State media reported that Kim’s backward step reflected an analysis of “prevailing conditions.”
North and South have been caught in an uneasy truce since 1953 when an armistice ended fighting in which millions of civilians had been killed and the military on all sides had suffered heavy casualties. A peace treaty has never been formalized, and in recent decades Pyongyang has teetered between compromise, isolation, and the kind of headline-grabbing act exemplified by its decision to blow up the joint liaison office in Kaesong.
That move, a week after Pyongyang said it had cut all communication links to Seoul, effectively marked the end of the Panmunjon Declaration and the last round of engagement that began in 2018 under the Moon.
It was “an attempt to break with the Moon administration,” noted a comment on 38 North, a website dedicated to analyzing North Korea from the Stimson Center in Washington, DC.
Increased rhetoric followed a series of missile tests last year after the second summit between Kim and United States President Donald Trump was broken by the easing of sanctions, and a subsequent attempt to revive the talks. denuclearization failed. Kim had set a year-end deadline for the United States to change its stance.
By targeting Seoul and rejecting Moon’s envoys offer, Pyongyang could have hoped that the president, who has made inter-Korean cooperation a cornerstone of his administration, will lean on the United States to ease some of the sanctions imposed as a result of the Northern nuclear tests.
Instead, the South responded more forcefully than usual, saying that by criticizing Moon, Kim had “fundamentally damaged trust between the two leaders.” The unification minister resigned.
Jay Song, an academic at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute, says that internal politics in the South also requires scrutiny, noting that the Unification Ministry cannot do anything without a green light from the National Security Council in tThe Presidential Blue House.
“The National Security Council are internationalists [and] prioritize the Republic of Korea-United States alliance over the ethno-nationalist mandate of the Unification Ministry to improve inter-Korean relations, “said Song, who is Senior Lecturer at the Korea Foundation for Korean Studies. “The choice of South Korea is not easy, especially when the North wants to be a nuclear state.”
South Korea has struggled over how to deal with its northern neighbor since the end of Japanese colonization led to the division of the Korean peninsula between the Soviet Union-backed North and the U.S.-backed South.
Pyongyang, which for a long time dismissed Seoul as a “puppet” of the United States, sent its troops through the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, in a move that led to UN intervention, the mobilization of American and Commonwealth forces, and brought to China troops fighting in support of the North Koreans.
China was concerned then, as it is now, about maintaining a buffer state, while the United States continues to station some 28,500 soldiers in the south. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two countries remains one of the world’s most fortified borders, despite the relaxing measures that were part of the 2018 agreement.
Under the agreement, the two sides agreed to withdraw soldiers from some border areas, remove the loudspeakers used to transmit propaganda messages from north to south, the movement Pyongyang said this month would reverse, and curb the activities of defectors and activists with Floating propaganda leaflets. from south to north.
Amid the escalation, South Korea again promised legal action to end leaflet distribution, but sanctions make it difficult for Moon to deliver on economic initiatives planned in 2018 without US backing. USA
Even before Kim’s move to get away from the provocations, analysts noted that while the stance was helping Kim Yo Jong polish his leadership credentials in a patriarchal, militarized regime, the decision to chart his planned steps suggested some flexibility, an opportunity for his brother to “refrain from participating directly in hostilities so as not to exhaust the possibility that you may still meet with President Moon and President Trump to reach an agreement in the future, “said Lami Kim, professor of Asian studies at US War War College.
“The wording of the announcement, certainly in Korean, makes it clear that this is a temporary decision,” said KCL’s Pacheco Pardo. “So the announcement leaves the door open for further reduction, but also for a new scale.”
After the heady days of the Singapore and Hanoi Summits, Trump now appears to have lost interest in North Korea, focusing instead on propping up his own position in a hard-hitting re-election battle in November amid the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak. and public anger at police brutality and systemic racism.
Even during the Singapore summit, if former national security adviser John Bolton is believed to be, Trump simply focused on optics, wanting to know how many journalists were expected to attend the final press conference.
“That’s what he focused on,” Bolton said in an interview with ABC News on Sunday. “That he had this huge photo opportunity – the first time that a US president met with the North Korean leader.”
“Like many other countries in the world, North Korea has probably realized that this president is not going to comply,” said Pacheco Pardo. “But they don’t want to completely break with the United States.”
China remains North Korea’s greatest ally, and satellite images shared by the Stimson Center suggest that trade may have resumed at the border, after months of closure as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The COVID-19 outbreak suspended tourism and trade with China, bringing the country’s economy closer to a breaking point, “said Kim of the US Army War College.”It is still too early to give up diplomacy, not because KJU is a trusted leader, but because the dire economic situation in North Korea makes economic incentives very attractive. “
In Pyongyang, the regime feels that it has made enough concessions, taking steps to destroy its Yongbyon nuclear facility and returning the remains of the soldiers who died during the war, to deserve some concessions.
Some 147 sets of remains arrived in Seoul from Hawaii on Wednesday, some of which were discovered as a result of the 2018 initiative, but if the South expected the two-year arrest to be a sign that the cycle of provocation and compromise had been Sent into the past, the events of the past few weeks have shown that there is still a long way to go.