By Abrita Kuthumi
Photo: Yonhap/Associated Press
After years of talks on peace and reunification, there has been a sudden tense escalation between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Republic of Korea (ROK). The most recent incident that exacerbated the relations between the two Koreas was the four-story joint liaison office that is located in the North Korean territory of Kaesong and paid for by South Koreans being blown up and destroyed by North Korea. The building was highly symbolic as it was used to push forward dialogue between North Korea and South Korea. As the office stood close to the demilitarized zone, the aftermath of North Korea’s actions could be witnessed from South Korea as smoke filled the sky.
According to the South Korean Unification Ministry, there were no South Korean staff present at the liaison office because of its closure since January 30 after the Covid-19 pandemic hit the area. Nonetheless, the incident gravely angered the South Korean government who responded with a strong message that it was monitoring North Korean armed forces and any further attacks would be met with great opposition. South Korea’s Blue House expressed disappointment, stating it as “an act of betrayal of the expectations of all who wish for the improvement of the inter-Korean relations and settlement of peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
North Korea has claimed the reason behind the decision to destroy the liaison building to be the leaflets that were sent to spread anti-North Korean propaganda towards the north of the demilitarized zone. Groups of North Korean defectors were launching balloons with the leaflets, which led North Korea to criticize South Korea for allowing it to continuously happen. Kim Yo-jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister, has been particularly vocal. A statement from North Korea was published that read, “The world will clearly see what severe punishment our people will mete out to the South Korean authorities and how they wipe the human scum off the earth.”
Before this aggravation, South Korea had been aware of North Korea’s frustration with the leaflets and announced that it would seek to stop these activities by charging the defectors with the reasoning that “such action of distributing leaflets should be ceased as it not only poses a risk to the lives and property of our nationals living in the border area, but also hinders inter-Korean quarantine cooperation.” Park Sang-hak, a defector and leader of the Fighters for Free North Korea, inflamed by the decision spoke up, saying “South Korea is gagging us, who are its citizens, while kowtowing to the evil regime in the North [...] The more they suppress us, the more leaflets we will send, and the more often.” This act of the South Korean government has been criticized by some for infringement upon the freedom of speech in a democratic state.
Despite the South Korean government’s apparent intentions to ease tensions, given North Korea’s aggressions, analysts have been led to believe that the issue is not about the leaflets-- that is merely an excuse. Laura Bicker, the CNN Seoul correspondent, expressed that Kim Jong-un needs to make an issue to rally its people around to hide the dire economic situation that has taken a toll on the country, especially with the Covid-19 pandemic hindering the ability to acquire raw materials and smuggle. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been consistently eyeing on peace and negotiation over confrontation. After the news of the incident, he stated, “The path that two Koreas must walk is clear. Like the river that twists and turns but eventually reaches the seas, the South and North must keep their optimistic faith and taken each step towards national reconciliation, peace, and unification, however slow it may be.”