What might North Korea do next after blowing up Korea liaison office?

A view of the joint liaison office with South Korea exploding in the border town Kaesong on June 16, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - North Korea's move to destroy a liaison office with South Korea follows weeks of escalating rhetoric from the reclusive nation and may signal the start of fresh provocations against a country with which it shares one of the world's most militarized borders.

Mr Kim Jong Un's regime will probably stick for now to measures that are less likely to draw in the US military, with its 28,000 troops in South Korea and far superior firepower, to the Soviet-era weaponry in North Korea's arsenal. Mr Kim would also be calculating how to avoid raising the ire of China, which is North Korea's main geopolitical and economic benefactor.

That still leaves Pyongyang with an array of options to pressure South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has called for months for talks and sought economic exchanges but hasn't broken away from the global sanctions regime choking North Korea's crippled economy. Mr Kim is the first North Korean leader to have direct talks with a sitting US president and now views Mr Moon as meddlesome for attempting to act as a bridge to Donald Trump.

So far the South Korean President has shown almost no appetite for retaliating against the regime at the risk of derailing a pledge he made to his supporters to bring the Koreas closer together. That's even as trade between the countries, which was once about 10 per cent of the size of North Korea's economy, has shrunk to virtually zero due to the global sanctions pushing Pyongyang for nuclear and missile tests conducted in 2017.

Here are some actions that might come next:


Mr Kim threatened in October to tear down South Korean-built structures at a North Korean mountain resort, saying they looked like "makeshift tents in a disaster-stricken area".

The Mount Kumgang resort, built by an affiliate of South Korea's Hyundai Group and shuttered for more than a decade, opened in 1998 as a symbol of cooperation between two countries technically still at war. It has hotels, restaurants, shopping arcades and a performance hall. Mr Moon has been pushing for it to reopen.

Hyundai Asan Corp said it has invested 767 billion won (S$878.7 million) in total. In 2008, South Koreans were ordered to vacate the resort after a 53-year-old female vacationer who wandered off its grounds was shot dead by a North Korean soldier.


Just hours before North Korea blew up the liaison office, it said it was reviewing a plan to send troops into some areas of the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula.

On Wednesday, it made clear its intentions by saying it would deploy troops into disarmed areas on its side of the border where it had joint projects with South Korea. These are an area in the western border city of Kaesong where it had a joint factory park and the liaison office and Mount Kumgang on the east, where there was a joint resort.

Troops were moved out to make way for those projects. It could also try to sully a 2018 agreement Mr Moon reached with Mr Kim to reduce tensions on the border by reopening 10 front-line guard posts.


After marching together under a joint flag when South Korea hosted the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, prospects seem dim for a similar procession when Tokyo is set to host the summer games next year. The two told the International Olympic Committee in 2019 they were looking into a joint march and fielding a few unified teams.

But after North Korea cut communications with South Korea this week in anger over anti-Pyongyang leaflets flying over the border, it's almost impossible to iron out such details.


Since 2019, North Korea has tested several types of short-range ballistic missiles capable of hitting all parts of South Korea, including US military bases. These solid-fuel missiles are among the new weapons rolled out under Mr Kim and are easier to hide and deploy than his older rockets.

The arsenal includes the nuclear-capable KN-23 that's designed to avoid US interceptors on the peninsula. Mr Kim could speed up his short-range weapons programme to pressure Seoul, even as he holds fire on launching longer-range missiles.


This is the highest-risk option but one North Korea has taken before, most notably a decade ago when it was suspected of torpedoing a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, and a few months later shelling a South Korean island, killing two soldiers and two civilians.

An attack that goes too far runs the chance of spinning into war. An attack that leads to South Korean deaths undermines the calls for rapprochement on the grounds of brotherly unity made by many in Mr Moon's progressive camp.

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