KOREA CHAIR EXPLAINS • 25/05/2021
By Ramon Pacheco Pardo
In recent weeks, North Korea has manufactured a crisis with South Korea. Pyongyang’s words and actions strongly suggest that it would have found any reason to start a crisis in the Korean Peninsula, regardless of Seoul’s response. At the time of writing, North Korea is essentially tearing up the Panmunjom Declaration that both Koreas signed in 2018, including its implementation agreement in the military domain. In short Pyongyang is symbolising that the period of inter-Korean rapprochement launched two years ago is over for the time being.
Why is North Korea raising tensions?
There are several reasons why North Korea has manufactured a crisis with South Korea. A key reason seems to be that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has failed to deliver on his promise to improve the economic situation of the North Korean people. Two years after his summit with President Donald Trump in Singapore, North Korea is yet to get sanctions relief or even exemptions – a key pre-condition for the country to receive much-needed investment and boost exports. Seoul is not going to breach the sanctions regime for the sake of inter-Korean economic cooperation. And Kim lost face when he failed to reach any agreement with Trump during the Hanoi summit. Meanwhile, there are reports that COVID-19 is affecting the North Korean economy, including due to the closure of the Sino-North Korean border. A crisis with South Korea serves to divert attention from this failure, as well as to make clear to Seoul that economic cooperation is necessary for inter-Korean relations to move forward.
In addition, this crisis serves to boost Kim Yo-jong’s profile. Kim’s sister has recently been promoted within the North Korean political apparatus, and is being presented as the point person for inter-Korean relations. But Kim Yo-jong is the person that led a North Korean delegation to the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games, helping to kick-start the bout of diplomacy in 2018-19. Thus, she was more associated with engagement than tensions until now. Leading this phase of inter-Korean tensions serves to boost her credentials as a hardliner on South Korea when necessary.
Pyongyang also seems to be looking at indirectly pressuring the United States. It has become clear that Trump has lost interest in reaching a deal with Kim following from the failed Hanoi summit. Trump has also shown that he does not react to short-range and medium-range ballistic missile tests. Conducting an ICBM test, never mind a nuclear one, runs the risk of more sanctions being slapped on Pyongyang. It would also delay any potential resumption of US-North Korea diplomacy. Raising tensions with Seoul could lead the Moon Jae-in government to request that the US provides sanctions exemptions to implement inter-Korean economic cooperation projects. This is something that Moon would like to do anyway.
What can we expect in future weeks and months?
The basic calculation has not changed for the Kim regime: it needs sanctions relief to strengthen the North Korean economy and, relatedly, to strengthen its grip on power. Ultimately, sanctions relief will only come from a deal with the United States involving Pyongyang moving towards denuclearisation. In the next days and weeks, however, we should expect Pyongyang to continue to ramp up tensions. We do not know whether North Korea will go as far as it did in 2010 with the shelling of Yeonpyeong, but it should not be discarded. An ICBM test is less likely for the reasons mentioned above though. In addition, we should also expect North Korea to take a wait-and-see approach to the upcoming US presidential election. Most probably, it will then seek to (re-)start a diplomatic process with whoever wins.