SEOUL - North Korea destroyed a building that was a key symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, in an apparent attempt to exert pressure on Seoul and Washington for their stalled dialogue.
Smoke was seen billowing from the inter-Korean liaison office building located in the border city Kaesong on North Korea's side of the demilitarised zone yesterday, following the sound of an explosion.
North Korea's state-owned Korean Central News Agency later confirmed that the facility had been "tragically ruined with a terrific explosion".
The move, the culmination of a series of threats and harsh rhetoric, prompted a stern warning from South Korea's presidential Blue House that it would "strongly respond if North Korea takes any action that further worsens the situation".
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan would analyse the situation and respond in close coordination with South Korea and the United States.
"Japan is hoping that there will be no further escalation in tensions between North and South Korea," he added.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian did not refer directly to the explosion but voiced the hope for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula during his daily briefing. China, one of the isolated nation's few allies, has considerable sway over it.
The liaison office was opened in September 2018 to support inter-Korean exchanges after an agreement was signed between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their first summit in April that year.
In January, both sides agreed to close the office due to concerns over the coronavirus spreading. North Korea also barred entry to all foreigners.
Last Saturday, Mr Kim's powerful sister, Yo Jong, warned that Seoul would soon see "a tragic scene of the useless North-south liaison office completely collapsing".
The regime has been dialing up rhetoric against the South in anger over propaganda balloons released by North Korean defectors criticising their former leader.
President Moon on Monday urged Pyongyang to leave the door open for dialogue, and said both sides must abide by the peace deals he and Mr Kim signed in 2018.
North Korea has made several threats against South Korea in recent days, and on Tuesday, its military warned it would send troops "into the zones that had been demilitarised under the North-South agreement, turn the front line into a fortress and further heighten the military vigilance against the South".
While it did not give details, there are only two joint economic zones - Mount Kumgang resort and Kaesong Industrial Complex, where the liaison office is located.
The state-owned Rodong Sinmun newspaper also warned of a "lightning strike on South Korean authorities as punishment and exterminate this scum," referring to the defectors who released the propaganda balloons.
Experts said Pyongyang's hardline tactics could be aimed at exerting pressure on Seoul and Washington to force them to resume stalled nuclear talks, which have taken a back seat as Mr Trump focuses on re-election.
Professor Leif-Eric Easley of Ewha Womans University said Pyongyang could be trying to decouple the Seoul-Washington alliance by making things "politically inconvenient for both Trump and Moon", such that the US would leave Seoul to deal with Pyongyang on its own.
"Kim Jong Un wants Moon to cancel military exercises and circumvent sanctions to provide the North with economic benefits," he said. "Eventually, North Korea will challenge the US directly and demand sanctions relief to deescalate a manufactured crisis."
Prof Easley added that Mr Kim "sees little to lose" by pressuring South Korea, and that the regime will continue to escalate tensions even if Seoul responds with restraint.
Dr Lee Seong-hyon of the Sejong Institute think tank warned that inter-Korean ties have "entered a dark, bottomless pit" with the destruction of the liaison office.
"Essentially, Kim is using South Korea as decoy to force Washington to pay attention to North Korea," he told The Straits Times.
"South Korea will try to de-escalate the tension by talking to North Korea. But it will be a challenging task because North Korea apparently wants to run the course of its version of 'fire and fury' toward South Korea to the fullest."