What Do North Korea’s Latest Moves Mean for Inter-Korean Relations?

Two months ago, President Moon Jae-in’s ruling Democratic party won a landslide victory in the national assembly election. The sweeping victory provides Moon’s party the opportunity to pursue various policy initiatives, including inter-Korean cooperation

While progress has been made, reports this week said North Korea was cutting off communication hotlines with South Korea. This will be a serious blow to Moon’s agenda—something which he has pursued since coming to power. 

This post will explain what led to heightened tensions between the two sides and what this means for reunification.

The Situation

On June 9, North Korea announced through the KCNA state news agency that it would sever hotlines with South Korea as the first step toward shutting down all contact. 

This comes as NGOs in South Korea sent anti-regime leaflets to the north. Kim Yo Jong (Kim Jong-un’s sister) and Kim Yong Chol (vice chairman of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party) both stated that “the work towards the South should thoroughly turn into the one against the enemy.” 

Leaflets have continued to be a source of tension between the two sides, with North Korea unsatisfied with Seoul’s response to prevent such leaflets from being flown to the north. This was not the first time tensions have led to severing of communication lines. 

However, it was the first time since 2018 that North Korea did not answer a liaison call.

South Korea’s Response

Seoul responded by announcing that the 2 organizations who sent the leaflets would be charged for violating the  Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act (1990). 

The act was established to promote cooperation and exchange between the two Koreas. 

Interestingly, this is the first case the act has been invoked against defector activism, perhaps an indication of Seoul’s intention to show sincerity toward Pyongyang.

Reports suggest that the Ministry of Unification intends to apply Article 13 of the act that requires any exports of goods to North Korea to receive approval from the ministry. 

Surprisingly, it was just last month talks began circulating regarding Seoul’s intention to amend the act. Amending this act would allow friendly gatherings between citizens to occur without reports to the ministry. Only business would be required to report their interactions with North Korean businesses. 

The revised law would also allow municipalities to execute cross border projects. Local firms would be able to open offices in North Korea. This would be a significant step toward building trust, paving the way for talks over reunification. 

The National Assembly is scheduled to vote on the revised law later this year.

South Korea Wants More

Recently, there are indications that South Korea wants to accelerate its cooperation with North Korea. 

On May 21, the Ministry of Unification reiterated that sanctions imposed on North Korea following the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010 were no longer seen as a hindrance to cooperation efforts. 

The so-called “May 24 measures” were imposed by then-President Lee Myung-bak in response to North Korea’s attack on the vessel Cheonan, resulting in the death of 46 sailors. 

The measure cut almost all trade and investment as well as prohibiting humanitarian aid without government permission. Sanctions overlapping those imposed by the US and the UN will remain in place. 

South Korea also agreed to provide $4.9 million for a UN aid project aimed at improving sustainable development in North Korea.

These moves are seen as significant steps to improve inter-Korean relations amid the stalled denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea.

Besides the sweeping electoral victory in April, youth support for reunification will motivate Moon to pursue inter-Korean cooperation. These are future (or current) voters who have the chance of living the majority of their lives in a united Korea. 

According to a report published on May 28 by the National Youth Policy Institute, 67.8% of 3,228 elementary, middle, and high school students supported reunification. 

Among the respondents, 28.8% said reunification would help Korea become stronger, while 23.2% said it would ease security concerns. 

North Korea’s Motivations

Why would North Korea decide to cut off communication lines when South Korea has been taking steps to increase cooperation? After all, this is not the first time defectors have flown leaflets. 

Experts suggest that North Korea’s dire economic situation and food shortages may have forced this reaction. Pyongyang could be looking for Seoul to provide economic and food aid amid the pandemic and crippling US sanctions. 

Considering Seoul’s immediate reaction to pursue charges against the defector groups, this has worked out quite well. Moon said in the past that he wants to help North Korea deal with the pandemic. While this did not point to sanctions relief, independent humanitarian aid is always possible.

This could also be a show of strength domestically. A poor economy and rumors of Kim Jong-un’s death could have been seen as signs of a weakening regime. Naming South Korea as an enemy could help quell unrest and ensure citizens that all is well. 

With America focused on the pandemic and domestic unrest, Pyongyang could have read this as an opportunity to push reunification forward. The US Department of State has urged South Korea to proceed inter-Korean exchanges in tandem with denuclearization. Denuclearization is unlikely especially with North Korea constantly worried about a US invasion, making this a possible step forward without Washington. 

With Trump’s attention elsewhere, Kim may be forcing Moon to push inter-Korean cooperation. It may be a way to gain easy concessions from Moon who wants peaceful reunification. 

On the other hand, it could also be another move to grab Trump’s attention. Kim has preferred to deal with Trump (for reasons stated above). This, coupled with another missile test in the near future, could force Trump to react before the election in November.

What Happens Now?

After the DOS stated its disappointment at North Korea for suspending communication, Pyongyang warned that Washington should remain quiet on inter-Korean issues if it wanted the upcoming presidential election to go smoothly.

This could be a threat to conduct a major missile test before the election, hurting Trump’s chances at reelection. 

For now, Trump’s interests are elsewhere. North Korea’s focus is probably on South Korea and what they can squeeze out of Seoul with minimal US intervention. For all we know, Washington and Seoul have conflicting interests, and this latest move by Pyongyang may be an attempt to drive a wedge between the allies. 

South Korea is likely to continue pushing for increased inter-Korean cooperation. However, whether Pyongyang will react to those moves is still up in the air.

There are suggestions that the government should dispatch a special envoy to push another inter-Korean summit. If reunification is to proceed in any tangible form, another Panmunjom-type deal may be necessary.

It remains to be seen what the future holds. It will be interesting to see how Seoul and Pyongyang interact in the next few months. For America, the possibility of another missile test will be the primary focus. 

Image: Cheongwadae/Blue House

2 thoughts on “What Do North Korea’s Latest Moves Mean for Inter-Korean Relations?

  1. North Korea: “Hey United States, that’s a pretty nice presidential election you’ve got there. Would be a shame if something were to . . . happen to it.”

    Liked by 1 person

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