The explosion that demolished the inter-Korean joint liaison office Tuesday afternoon should serve as a very loud wake-up call for those in Washington and Seoul who still believe that North Korea has any interest in dismantling its nuclear arsenal. Instead, Pyongyang clearly prefers a path of violence and blackmail diplomacy, carefully using force to ratchet up the fear factor to try to extort concessions from the U.S. and South Korea, rather than engage in the compromises and confidence-building measures needed for true peace.
Why Pyongyang decided to take this particular move now has largely to do with the enormous internal pressure Kim Jong Un is under from the military and other North Korean elites.
Tuesday's destruction of the joint liaison office — established to facilitate contact between the North and South Korean governments, who have no official relations — was a surprise, but North Korea's negotiating style is extremely predictable. For decades, the regime has employed provocations to disrupt the status quo without crossing the threshold of war in order to force its adversaries to choose between escalating tensions or providing political and economic concessions. The U.S. and South Korea have wisely not given in to these demands.
The North's provocations have ranged from bellicose statements to military skirmishes near the border to nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests to cyberattacks and, now, to bombing a South Korea-funded building in its own territory. This latest action was especially shrewd, because the fact that it was in North Korea raises tensions without triggering a military response.
Why Pyongyang decided to take this particular move now has largely to do with the enormous internal pressure Kim Jong Un is under from the military and other North Korean elites for failing to gain relief from Seoul and Washington after raising expectations that he could get them to lift sanctions.
He uses actions like this to demonstrate strength to these domestic power brokers in the face of sweeping international sanctions by the United Nations on goods, commodities and services that are connected to North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs, while the U.S. Treasury targets specific individuals and companies involved in a range of wrongdoing.
North Korea is also always looking for ways to break up the Washington-Seoul alliance, so it wants to exploit the friction over the billions of dollars President Donald Trump is demanding from his South Korean counterpart to defray the costs of stationing U.S. forces there. A violent act that will leave some calling for retaliatory action and others looking to find ways to calm Pyongyang down is a great way to do that.
Another factor is also likely at play: Kim's health problems and the related rise of his sister Kim Yo Jong, rumored as a possible successor. Apparently, she ordered the demolition (though she almost certainly had her brother's approval).
She might have done so to enhance her legitimacy and burnish her less-than-serious image. Some in the West have likened her to a North Korean Ivanka Trump, and commentary about her looks, makeup, clothing and style have filled the internet. The South Korean media referred to her as a "harmless angel" when she first made headlines during the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018.
Yet Kim Yo Jong is fully complicit in the regime's brutal human rights abuses, global illicit activities and propaganda. The U.S. has specifically sanctioned her for these activities. If she replaces her brother, she could be an even more dangerous dictator.
In recent weeks, Kim Yo Jong has led a campaign expressing anger over South Korea's unwillingness to ban or punish North Korean escapees and activist groups that send anti-regime leaflets north across the border on giant balloons.
North Korea also seems to be preparing to abrogate a comprehensive military agreement signed in 2018 to reduce tensions between North and South. On the day the liaison office was demolished, the General Staff of the North Korean People's Army issued a statement reporting the military's preparation to reoccupy guard posts at the Demilitarized Zone in direct violation of the agreement's terms.
The administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has valued both this military agreement and the liaison office as crucial components of its peace strategy. The office went up only two years ago and cost an estimated $15 million.
The only way Moon can turn this situation around is by not surrendering to Pyongyang's demands. In the days before Tuesday's explosion, there were reports that Seoul was preparing to pass legislation to ban leaflet activities. If Moon, indeed, concedes to the North's demand, he would set a dangerous precedent.
Moon must instead reinforce and strengthen the U.S.-South Korea alliance. This seven-decades-long security partnership has successfully deterred North Korea from engaging in a full-scale conflict since the Korean War ended in a stalemate.
If the two allies fail to complete the negotiation over sharing the costs of U.S. troops in Korea, it could result in their withdrawal from the peninsula, which would be an immense strategic victory for North Korea. Instead, the alliance must prioritize compromise in these negotiations and resolve its immediate differences.
Pyongyang's latest action confirms that it never wavered from executing a strategy based on subversion, coercion and the use of force to dominate the Korean Peninsula.
Washington and Seoul should also restore the alliance's military readiness to full capacity. They must reinitiate comprehensive combined military exercises this summer and deploy strategic assets on a routine basis to maintain deterrence. In addition, the U.S. and South Korea, along with their regional partners, should continue to coordinate in imposing economic, political and military pressure on North Korea to persuade the Kim family regime that retaining its nuclear weapons will only endanger its survival.
Only when there's sufficient internal pressure from a displeased elite and military will Kim Jong Un consider changing his calculus and giving up nuclear weapons. If that does not happen, it is still imperative that maximum pressure be sustained to reduce access to resources for the regime's nuclear and missile programs.
Pyongyang's latest action confirms that it never wavered from executing a strategy based on subversion, coercion and the use of force to dominate the Korean Peninsula. The South Korea-U.S. alliance can turn things in its favor by confronting the North rather than giving in to its extortion once again.