Expert Commentary on Current Tensions Following the Destruction of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office

The risk of escalation on the Korean Peninsula is currently at a high point. Open Nuclear Network (ONN) has asked a number of renowned experts to share their views on the current tensions following the destruction of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office.

The risk of escalation on the Korean Peninsula is currently at a high point. Open Nuclear Network (ONN) has asked a number of renowned experts to share their views on the situation. While the views and opinions expressed below do not necessarily reflect those of ONN, they offer insights by those experts from their respective backgrounds. ONN will continue to monitor the developing situation and encourage parties to resume communication, as well as manage escalatory risk in any action they may take to address developments.

Is the Sun Setting on North Korean Diplomatic Engagement?

By Amb. (ret.) Glyn T. Davies, former U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy

At least it wasn't nuclear. 

The blast recorded Tuesday last week by South Korean cameras trained on North Korea's border village of Kaesong was meant to impress. It flattened a four-story building, bringing forth waterfalls of shattered glass from neighboring structures. 

The building had served for less than two years as a joint liaison office - a venue for North and South Korean officials to develop cooperative projects for the betterment of their peoples. It was a concrete step toward Korean rapprochement, buttressing hopes North Korea was on the high road to a more positive, peaceful diplomacy.           

The staged explosion dashed those hopes, at least for now. The pyrotechnics also triggered, predictably and by design, consternation in Seoul, a scant 54 kilometers away, but also in Beijing, Washington and elsewhere.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in was likely particularly bereft. He had brought President Trump and DPRK Chairman Kim together two years earlier in Singapore. He had pushed to expand diplomacy between South and North, bringing the liaison office into being in the hopes it would accelerate inter-Korean rapprochement. Was the blast meant as a message to him?         

Or was it meant for America? The DPRK has abjured nuclear and long-range missile tests for two years, since the June, 2018 U.S.-DPRK Singapore Summit. Does the destruction of the joint liaison office signal Pyongyang is moving back in the direction of those more provocative, problematic steps?     

Something like this was not unexpected. In February 2019, just eight months after the showy Singapore Summit, President Trump's ill-prepared followup meeting in Hanoi with Chairman Kim fell apart when Kim did nothing on denuclearization and Trump refused, correctly, to lift U.S. sanctions. 

The leaders scrambled to meet again just four months later, in June, at the demilitarized zone separating North and South. The camera-ready third summit produced remarkable images but was once again a substantive bust. Follow-up working-level talks in Sweden in October fizzled. 

An unprecedented trifecta of U.S-DPRK summit meetings in just twelve months had fallen victim to Kim Jong-un's intransigence and Donald Trump’s diplomatic malpractice.  Nothing was achieved on the core nuclear and missile files, though the tenuous testing moratoriums remained.         

That was a year ago. Trump moved on to other matters but Kim stayed focused on his unrequited ultimata, principally sanctions relief and a peace treaty. As 2019 ticked down, he warned darkly on December 3rd that he would deliver a "Christmas gift," perhaps by deploying a "new strategic weapon."  Christmas came and went without incident, but in March of this year the DPRK launched an alarming clutch of short-range missiles. Then things got weird. 

Kim Jong Un went missing in April and early May. Was the portly, chain-smoking Chairman sick? Was he social distancing to avoid COVID? We may never know, but he popped up later in May, spiking speculation by opening a fertilizer plant.

He also left no doubt about his dark diplomatic mood. A recent DPRK statement labeled Secretary of State Pompeo “ignorant” for criticizing China and being unable to "discern where the sun rises and where it sets."    

Meanwhile, the leader's sister, Kim Yo-jong, took the lead in excoriating Seoul ("the enemy") for failing to stop ROK activists from anti-regime leafletting by cross-border balloon. On Saturday she warned Seoul it would see the collapse of the liaison office, ensuring ROK cameras would be focused for the show.       

So it seems likely last week's blast was a missive meant for both the ROK and the U.S. Moon and Trump share blame in Kim's estimation for trifling with him. 

Will the only nation to detonate a nuclear device in this new century continue to escalate its actions?  History suggests so, at least for now. The non-lethal leveling of a building on its own soil is low on the DPRK's ladder of escalation.

How then do we de-escalate tensions and move denuclearization forward? Diplomacy is our only real option. Ask the generals: the DPRK nuclear threat cannot reasonably be dealt with by force of arms. We should therefore redouble efforts with North Korea's neighbors, especially the ROK and China, to convince Kim of the dangers of provocation, but also of the benefits of denuclearization and normalization. By combining pressure with palaver, we can sway him.  

Only then can the sun set on a peaceful Korean Peninsula.  

Ambassador (ret.) Glyn T. Davies served as Special Representative for North Korea Policy, Permanent Representative to the IAEA, and Executive Secretary of the National Security Council in his 38-year Foreign Service career.

What Do North Korean Provocations Mean for China?

By Dr. Tong Zhao, Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing

The world is shocked by the blowing up of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office by North Korea who has continued to upgrade its threats and raise tensions along the inter-Korean border. These have followed multiple short-range missile tests and other relatively low-level provocations by North Korea earlier in the year. As the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic tapers, North Korea may be stepping up efforts to carry out "offensive measures" and a "new path" pledged by Kim Jong Un since the end of 2019. The pandemic may have worsened the domestic economic situation that is already under stress from severe sanctions. This may have added to Pyongyang’s sense of urgency to ramp up its own version of maximum pressure campaign and to force Seoul and Washington into relaxing economic constraints on North Korea.

The intensifying U.S.-China great power competition provides an important opportunity for Pyongyang to exploit. Mutual finger-pointing during the pandemic has pushed the hostile relationship between Beijing and Washington to a level that senior Chinese experts believe is worse than the U.S.-Soviet relationship during the Cold War. When Chinese strategists feel their country is under vicious attack from the United States and is at a time of strategic vulnerability, they probably view North Korean provocations that humiliate not only Seoul but also Washington as less problematic. Indeed, many Chinese government experts are sympathetic and share Pyongyang's frustration over the perceived failure by Seoul and Washington to deliver their previous promises. Recent North Korean efforts to publicly defend Beijing's position over COVID-19 and Hong Kong were probably aimed at further securing Chinese support in the event that future North Korean provocations cause serious international backlash.

The recent North Korean threats so far have been focused on South Korea. Sensing a growing division within the U.S.-ROK alliance, caused by disagreements over burden-sharing and by President Trump's transactional attitudes towards allies in general, North Korea may believe it has a chance to drive the Moon administration to exercise greater autonomy from Washington. To some extent, such North Korea activities are doing China a favor. To have the U.S.-led military alliance weakened and to draw South Korea away from the U.S. orbit is very much in Chinese geostrategic interests.

Nonetheless, the North Korean brinkmanship is never risk free. Between now and when the next U.S. president takes power is a relatively safe window of opportunity for North Korea to push the envelope without fearing huge consequences. Internal power transition undermines the U.S. will and capacity to open a new front against North Korea and the competitive U.S.-China relationship makes additional collective punishment from the U.N. Security Council unlikely. If North Korea needs to perfect its strategic deterrent capabilities which many analysts believe are not yet technically effective or reliable, it won't have to wait longer. It may even calculate that to test its strategic weapons would strengthen its future negotiating leverage and consolidate its claim as a permanent nuclear power. This is a prospect that worries China and represents a major divergence of interests between Beijing and Pyongyang. To dissuade North Korea from testing long-range missiles or conducting other serious military provocations, Beijing needs to signal to Pyongyang beforehand where the red line is and what consequences may follow. The message would be more effective if it is coordinated with the United States and other regional players.

The fact that North Korea aims its wrath at political leaflets should be a wake-up call for those who believe Kim Jong Un has a different vision for his country than his father and grandfather. It demonstrates Kim's little tolerance for things that may weaken the information barrier between his insulated kingdom and the outside world and that may undermine North Korea's long-standing political ideology built around the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family. His apparent promotion of his sister to be the de facto Number 2 in the political system defies some observers' previous expectation that Kim Jong Un would gradually transform the family rule toward a more modern governance system. For many Chinese strategists who are proponents of comprehensive engagement with North Korea, they may feel the need to reexamine the widely accepted assumption in China that Kim Jong Un would take North Korea in the direction of opening up and reform and that after North Korea becomes more developed and stronger it would have no need for keeping its nuclear weapons.

The blowing up of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office adds weight to the hypothesis that nuclear weapons will embolden North Korean behavior. This slap in the South Korea's face after Seoul’s dedicated effort in the last few years to work with the North should also raise questions of the Chinese confidence that China could manage and steer North Korea's behavior to its own benefit. The need for China to cooperate more closely with South Korea, the United States, and other regional players to jointly contain North Korean provocations is growing.

The current status quo over the Korean Peninsula is not sustainable, as North Korea faces growing economic stress and may become more desperate to shake off the external constraints. China and the United States need to lead a discussion with the other main stakeholders in the region to build common understandings on two issues: how to coordinate immediate steps to deter North Korean provocations in the near-term and how to construct a strategic plan to prevent a permanent nuclear-armed North Korea in the long run. This also presents an opportunity for Washington and Beijing to work together in an area of obvious common interests and help save their own bilateral relationship from falling into a comprehensive confrontation.

Dr. Tong Zhao is a Senior Fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Nuclear Policy Program based at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.