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Deciphering North Korean tactics

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By Tong Kim

North Korea has just run through another pattern of escalating and de-escalating tensions with the South. The recent escalation ― which started over the scattering of leaflets by some North Korean defector groups living in the South ― was ended by Kim Jong-un's decision at the June 23 "preliminary meeting" of the Workers' Party's Central Military Commission to call off military action plans against the South.

During the three-week escalation period, the North cut off all lines of communication and demolished a liaison office building at Gaeseong that was built at the cost of $14.7 million to South Korean taxpayers. The North made it clear that it would have had nothing more to do with the South.

On June 17, North Korea's power No. 2 Kim Yo-jong blasted President Moon Jae-in again, ridiculing and criticizing his remarks on the 20th anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit.

The suspended KPA plans had included redeploying military forces in the vicinities of Gaeseong and Mount Geumgang, refortifying guard posts along the demarcation line, reviving military drills along the DMZ, and support for disseminating anti-Moon leaflets to the South. However, there was no threat of a major provocation that may trigger a renewed hostility.

After Kim Jong-un's disapproval of the military plans, the KPA quickly removed the front line loudspeakers that they had reinstalled for operation against the South, and state-run propaganda outlets stopped carrying, or removed from their websites, anti-South Korean commentaries.

Kim Jong-un "withheld" the KPA's plans against the South; he did not withdraw or terminate them. Technically, the plans are still pending. They may be reinstated in a new situation, as Kim Yong-chol, vice-chairman of the Party's Central Committee warned on June 24, "Nothing will turn out favorable when our 'suspension' becomes 'reconsideration.'"

North Korean media outlets reported that Kim's decision was made after "an assessment of the prevailing situation," which must have provided the rationale for suspending the military action plans at least for now.

On the positive side of their assessment, they may have concluded that most of their objectives were accomplished: 1) to stop or minimize the scattering of anti-Kim Jong-un leaflets; 2) to demonstrate the anger and solidarity of the population in support of the leadership; 3) to blame the South for their internal economic plight; 4) to pressure the South for leeway from U.S. policy and to weaken the role of "a working group" with the U.S.; 5) to draw the attention of Washington, and 6) to elevate the stature of Kim Yo-jong, a potential heir to the throne of the regime, (if this was also an objective).

On their negative side, they may also have considered adverse factors that could come with further hard-line actions: 1) a possible return to "the fire and fury" of 2017 and massive joint exercises deploying U.S. strategic war assets ― including aircraft carriers and stealth bombers that they fear; 2) a strengthening of the U.S.-ROK alliance; 3) the North's comparative disadvantage in loudspeaker operations or in psychological warfare in general due to the South's economic superiority; and 4) liberals in the South may turn their backs against the North.
They know that the resignation of the unification minister of the South was a consequence of their offensive. They also know the Moon government is still better to the North than the two previous conservative administrations in Seoul.

On the other hand, it is doubtful that the theory of the division of labor between the bad cop by Kim Yo-jong and the good cop by Kim Jong-un was in Pyongyang's playbook. Kim himself never spoke ill of Moon. After the leader's overruling of the army general staff's action plans "entrusted" by Kim Yo-jong, her role may or may not change, for stronger or weaker.

One thing remains unchanged: Kim Jong-un calls ultimate shots in Pyongyang and everybody obeys. The Seoul government took some action to curb leaflet dissemination and showed humiliating restraint, only expressing regrets over the North's provocative behavior. Was it a good thing to do?

On June 25, on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, President Moon tried to reassure Chairman Kim that he opposes war, wants to live in peace with the North, while arguing that unification is thinkable only after a long period of peace. He never mentioned denuclearization ― just peace and common prosperity.

In the meantime, de-escalation brings a sense of relief. Now, how do you start talking to the North Koreans who have vowed not to talk to the South? We will have an answer, after the dusts settle.

Tong Kim (
) is a visiting professor with the University of North Korean Studies, a visiting scholar with Korea University, a fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies, and a columnist for The Korea Times.

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