North Korean leader Kim Jong-un slammed the brakes on military confrontation with South Korea, according to the North’s state media Wednesday.
The Workers’ Party Central Military Commission, presided over by Kim, on Tuesday “took stock of the prevailing situation and suspended the military action plans against the south” presented by the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army, read an English-language report from the regime mouthpiece Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
With Kim’s decision, the regime immediately began dismantling loudspeakers set up in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) this week to air propaganda broadcasts, a major deescalation of tensions that began with condemnations of Seoul this month by his sister Kim Yo-jong and the demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office at Kaesong.
Pyongyang’s state media on Wednesday withdrew 13 separate propaganda pieces condemning South Korea just hours after they were posted, curtailing a weeks-long anti-Seoul publicity campaign. This puzzling about-face from Pyongyang suggests the regime is temporarily reeling back its hostility towards Seoul in an attempt to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control and risk derailing its diplomatic engagement with the United States.
While in limbo for months following the collapse of the second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 2019, inter-Korean relations took a precipitous tumble after Kim Yo-jong on June 6 warned Seoul it would be “forced to pay a dear price” if it did not stop anti-Pyongyang activists in South Korea from dispatching propaganda leaflets across the border.
South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration took steps to crack down on the leaflets, but on June 9, the North cut off all official communications with the South, then abruptly followed up with its demolition of the liaison office on June 16. Taken aback by the escalation, Seoul proclaimed it may respond in kind, but the North appeared resolute in carrying out Kim Yo-jong’s orders to regard South Korea as an “enemy” by staging further provocations.
Last week, the General Staff of the North’s military described four “detailed military action plans under examination”: the deployment of troops to the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang; reestablishment of civil police posts; an upgrade of “front guard duty to top class combat duty system throughout the front”; and resumption of its own dispatching of propaganda leaflets to the South.
Millions of leaflets were printed and were ready to be sent across the border, state media said Monday, while North Korean troops were spotted setting up loudspeakers at around 20 spots in the DMZ in preparation to resume propaganda broadcasts that were halted as part of Moon and Kim Jong-un’s Panmunjom agreement signed in April 2018.
South Korea’s presidential office did not issue a formal response to the sudden reversal from Pyongyang, suggesting a cautious approach to North Korea’s unpredictable moves. The Ministry of Unification, Seoul’s top inter-Korean agency, said it was “closely watching” the situation, and said there was no change to the government’s position that inter-Korean agreements must be maintained by both sides.
One aspect of the decision the ministry did note, however, was that it emerged at a “preliminary meeting” of the Central Military Commission, which Unification Ministry Spokesman Yoh Sang-key said had no apparent precedents. Some experts in Seoul noted that the preliminary nature of the meeting could mean the measure to halt further provocations toward the South was temporary, and possibly meant to test the waters in terms of South Korea and the United States’ response to the recent escalation.
“What is certain is that [KCNA] said [Kim] suspended the plans, rather than canceled them,” said Kim Dong-yub, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in South Korea.
“One important thing to note is that [Kim] may be trying to confirm South Korea’s sincerity in order to build the necessary justification to engage in military provocation.”
Others noted the initial response from Seoul to restrain domestic activists from sending leaflets to the North may have placated Pyongyang to a degree.
“Through its hard-line drive, North Korea demonstrated it would never tolerate the dispatch of propaganda leaflets [by South Korean activists], and may have concluded it has achieved practical results given the South Korean government’s decision to strictly regulate scatterings of anti-Pyongyang fliers,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a leading North Korea researcher at the South’s Sejong Institute.
“It may have also determined that going any further than this may incur more harm than gain.”
Some experts even claimed the North’s demurral from further confrontation with the South may imply serious domestic woes in the country, possibly linked to a coronavirus outbreak. KCNA reported the preliminary meeting was held Tuesday through “video conferencing,” which some analysts say could suggest that infections in the North have spread to such a degree that Kim may be facing difficulty conferring with top officials.
North Korea continues to insist it has no confirmed Covid-19 cases on its soil, though medical experts around the world have doubted the claim. Regardless, the possibility of a different form of provocation still looms, analysts said.
“The military action plans proposed by the General Staff may have been suspended, but other proposals may have been approved at the meeting,” said Kim Dong-yub. “These proposals could include the launch of an SLBM [submarine-launched ballistic missile], the unveiling of a new strategic weapon or the development of new weapons for the modernization of the North’s military forces.”