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N. Korean Leader Suspends Military Action Plans against S. Korea

2020-07-02

ⓒ YONHAP News

North Korea has decided to suspend military actions against South Korea. The move comes as a surprise, given that Pyongyang had churned out scathing criticisms of South Korea and followed through on its threats by blowing up an inter-Korean liaison office in Gaeseong. It was widely believed that the North would soon push ahead with its military action plans. 


However, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presided over a preliminary meeting of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers’ Party last week and decided to put on hold military action plans against South Korea. The plans had been led by Kim Yo-jong, who is the leader’s sister and the first vice department director of the Central Committee of the party. It marked the first time that the country convened such a meeting since Kim Jong-un came to power. Here’s political commentator Choi Young-il with more. 


Previously, the General Staff of the North Korean military presented four military action plans: the deployment of troops to the Gaeseong Industrial Complex and the Mt. Geumgang area; the resumption of military exercises in the West Sea; the preparation of sending its own propaganda leaflets to South Korea; and the reestablishment of sentry posts along the Demilitarized Zone. North Korea was actually seen preparing for military action in border areas. 


But on June 23, the North Korean leader decided to hold off on the plans at the preliminary meeting of the Central Military Commission, which is a very unfamiliar conference. It seems North Korea has put the brakes on military confrontation with South Korea temporarily. After watching how South Korea will react, it may decide whether to cancel the plans altogether or resume them at a future military meeting.


North Korea’s recent decision brought a sudden change of mood in the extremely-tense inter-Korean relations. North Korea has dismantled loudspeakers that had been reinstalled along the border. Articles and comments criticizing South Korea have disappeared from Pyongyang’s state media, including the Rodong Sinmun newspaper. Meanwhile, propaganda outlets withdrew their articles condemning South Korea all at once. North Korea’s strident criticism of the South had continued since Kim Yo-jong’s aggressive statement on June 4, but now it seems to have vanished. 


As North Korea has removed about 30 propaganda loudspeakers, the DMZ area has restored peace. Earlier, the North said it was ready to send 12 million anti-South Korea leaflets to the South. Propaganda outlets strongly condemned the South Korean government, while mass rallies against South Korea had been held in various parts of the country since early June. With the leader’s decision, however, all these media activities and rallies completely disappeared. 


It was widely anticipated that North Korea would spread anti-South Korea leaflets or launch an armed provocation on June 25, which marked the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. Contrary to expectations, North Korea refrained from directly mentioning the Seoul government and simply blamed the U.S. for the war, adjusting their angle of criticism. So, how should we interpret North Korea’s surprise about-face? 


North Korea may have taken a hard stance in the belief that it won’t be easy to gain something from South Korea or the U.S. through dialogue. Domestically, the regime found it necessary to create and bash an enemy outside the country. This was in order to deal with increasingly negative public sentiment as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and economic difficulties. Now, it believes that going any further may backfire. So the top leader is seeking a new direction, while taking a breather, and observing Seoul’s attitude for some time. North Korea seems to be pleased with the first-phase provocation, which it believes has produced its intended effect. 


Some speculate that the leader and his sister Kim Yo-jong are playing “good cop, bad cop,” respectively, and the sister has emerged as the leader’s potential successor. 


Others, in contrast, say that all decisions are made by the top leader, who simply appeared at a time when it was necessary to defuse tension. By demonstrating his image as a leader to ease conflict, he is believed to leave room for summit talks with South Korea and the U.S. 


It is assumed that Kim Yo-jong has been promoted to the nation’s de facto second-in-command from her previous role as a protocol assistant to her brother. But many analysts do not really think Kim Yo-jong is the successor. While she continued to denounce South Korea as the “bad cop,” everything changed suddenly after her brother’s order. In a sense, she may have overacted incorrectly. North Korea never humiliates a successor. She could be recognized as North Korea’s second-in-command, but not as a successor yet. 


Meanwhile, the South Korean government sees North Korea decision to suspend military action plans as a positive signal and hopes to hold discussion with the North for a better relationship. There are mixed views on whether the recent development will bring about a positive change in chilly inter-Korean ties. 


Until recently, the prospects for inter-Korean relations and the peace process remained bleak. Fortunately, North Korea has put on the brakes in a timely manner. Of course, the South Korean government welcomes the move. Still, it did not immediately make a formal response, saying that it will continue to watch the situation carefully. North Korea’s decision was to suspend military plans, not cancel them. So, experts warn that Pyongyang could change its attitude at any time if it doesn’t like the response from South Korea or the U.S. 


The South Korean government says that it should continue to monitor North Korea’s move since Kim Jong-un’s decision was made at a rather unusual conference in the form of a preliminary meeting. That is, North Korea may hold a plenary or extended session later to reverse the decision and choose to resume military actions. 

Also, there are still some factors that might prompt North Korea to show hostility toward the South again. South Korean civic groups are still eager to send anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border. Also, South Korea and the U.S. are expected to resume their combined military drills that have been postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. If so, North Korea may react negatively. 


Stephen Biegun is expected to visit South Korea soon and send a message to North Korea. We have to see how the North will respond. It’s also important for South Korea and the U.S. to scale down their combined military exercises scheduled for August at a level that is acceptable by North Korea. Former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s memoir is an unexpected factor that might influence regional diplomacy. The memoir includes details about the first North Korea-U.S. summit in Singapore and the second in Hanoi. If North Korea reads it thoroughly, it will understand how earnestly South Korean President Moon Jae-in tried to facilitate the summits for the sake of peace, even supporting North Korea’s position to some extent, and how sincerely he hopes to settle peace on the Korean Peninsula. 


While South Korea and the U.S. are sending out conciliatory gestures toward North Korea, leader Kim Jong-un has not made any particular response. It remains to be seen how long the current lull in inter-Korean relations may last and how Biegun’s South Korea visit may influence regional diplomacy.

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