Home > News > North Korea blew up a ‘useless’ joint liaison office. The real surprise was who gave the order.
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North Korea blew up a ‘useless’ joint liaison office. The real surprise was who gave the order.

Kim Yo Jong is no longer a figure behind the scenes.

- June 26, 2020

Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, with no formal peace in sight. The mass bloodshed ended with a truce in 1953, but threats and tensions on the peninsula persist. Most recently, North Korea blew up the inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office on June 16. The building was a symbol of a “new era of peace” ushered in by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at their historic summit on April 27, 2018.

The destruction of the liaison office reflects a hot-cold pattern of political tactics and is not a serious event. This development reveals the debut of a new leader, and smarter maneuvering by Pyongyang than their reliance on missile tests.

Who’s in charge?

What is most striking about the destruction of the liaison building and the threat to remilitarize portions of the border is that Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korea’s paramount leader, led the charge. Kim Yo Jong uttered warnings about the “useless” liaison office and lambasted Moon, with whom she had shared handshakes and smiles during the early period of rapprochement in 2018 when she served as her brother’s emissary of peace and good tidings.

Her public face now is in high contrast to Kim Yo Jong’s behind-the-scenes role as both de facto chief-of-staff and servant-secretary for her brother — the role she played at the April 2018 North-South bilateral summit at Panmunjom, the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, the June 2018 Singapore summit between the United States and North Korea, and in Hanoi, when Kim Jong Un met with President Trump in February 2019. Since she made her first public statement in early March, mocking the Seoul government’s displeasure over Pyongyang’s rocket launches on March 2, Kim has resumed her seat as alternate member of the Politburo, the top governing body, in April.

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The younger Kim’s rapid rise culminated in a bold claim to state power in her June 14 statement, which presaged the destruction of the liaison building. It exuded authority and legitimacy: “By exercising my power authorized by the Supreme Leader, our Party and the state, I gave an instruction to the arms of the department in charge of the affairs with enemy to decisively carry out the next action.”

And North Korea’s state media increasingly depict Kim Yo Jong as a competent and authoritative leader, whose commands the government apparatus is ready to carry out. One former U.S. analyst on North Korea observes an “unusually high profile” for her in state media outlets.

North Korea’s media is essential to introducing supreme leaders and their successors and building up their legitimacy. Based on a computerized content analysis of North Korean news from 1997 to 2011, Western Kentucky University’s Timothy Rich argues that the media have carefully set the state for succession — for example, distinguishing between Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (the grandfather and father, respectively, of Kim Jong Un) as those transitions began.

Who’s afraid of balloons?

Why did North Korea destroy the liaison office? Pyongyang’s fury stems from balloon launches across the demilitarized zone into North Korea’s territorial space on May 31. “Balloon activists” are a small group of North Korean defectors living in the South who engage in propaganda warfare against the regime. They purport to exercise their freedom of speech and assembly by stuffing 30-foot-long balloons with thousands of anti-regime leaflets, USB drives of South Korean TV dramas and K-pop music, Bibles, rice, U.S. dollar bills, candy and more.

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The goals of these balloon activists include regime change and publicization of North Korea’s human rights abuses — and these actions are controversial. Domestic and international advocates for North Korean human rights usually argue that such activities are morally necessary and constitutionally guaranteed in a democratic society.

But others point to the physical and political dangers that balloon activism poses to citizens of border areas in both Koreas. In October 2014, troops on each side of the border exchanged antiaircraft and machine gun fire in response to balloon launches. Foreign Policy in Focus’s John Feffer explains that the activists are knowingly endangering North Korean civilians, who could be punished by state authorities for just picking up a leaflet or Bible that falls from the sky. My research for a current book project reveals that although balloon activists get much media attention, they are a marginal group within the larger defector community in South Korea.

How dangerous are North Korea’s recent actions?

However sensational, the dramatic detonation of the liaison office and the threat to remilitarize border areas don’t amount to serious threats. Although many observers have referred to the office as a “de facto embassy,” most of the inter-Korean meetings there dealt with possible cooperation on sports exchanges — and an agreement to bid for the 2032 Olympics as co-hosts and field a joint North-South team for the 2020 Olympics.

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South Korea has little reason to escalate. No one was hurt in the explosion, as South Korean officials vacated in late January when the office was shut down because Pyongyang feared the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Kaesong Industrial Complex (joint North-South manufacturing facilities) and Mount Kumgang tourist area, which Pyongyang threatened to remilitarize, were shuttered in 2016 and 2008, respectively. This was Seoul’s response to Pyongyang’s missile launches and the North’s shooting death of a South Korean tourist, respectively.

Even if South Korea and the United States wanted to escalate, they have few options. Washington and Seoul can’t threaten North Korea with their annual joint military exercises — the pandemic caused the allies to cancel these plans. Unlike with nuclear and missile tests, Pyongyang is playing it smart for now, using low-cost maneuvers — including their own balloon launch against South Korea — to get a big bang of attention.

Katharine H.S. Moon is a professor of political science at Wellesley College and author of “Protesting America: Democracy and the U.S.-Korea Alliance (University of California Press, 2012). Find her on Twitter @kathyhsmoon.