Seoul, South Korea, held an emergency security meeting on Sunday after Kim Yo Jung, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, threatened to use military action against South Korea amidst escalating tensions between the two countries.
Kim warned that Seoul would witness a “tragic scene of the North-South liaison office being completely collapsed.” She added that she will soon allow the North Korean military to select the next means of retaliation against the South. Earlier, North Korea cut off all communication lines and threatened to break 2018 peace agreements with its neighbour.
Kim’s statement is viewed as representative of her status as North Korea’s most powerful woman, given her ability to exercise such power. “By exercising my power authorized by the supreme leader, our party and the state, I gave an instruction to the arms of the department in charge of the affairs with the enemy to decisively carry out the next action,” she said in a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
Kim had also expressed anger towards the influx of activists sending anti-Pyongyang across the border. The statements arrived at a sensitive time, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit. The 2000 meeting proved pivotal for both nations, producing a boost in trade and joint projects attributed to then-president Kim Dae-jung’s reconciliation efforts. Despite the meeting’s fruitful outcome of easing tensions, the summit drew mass criticism for providing North Korea with cash required to develop its nuclear weaponry.
Prior to Kim’s statements, the South had taken legal action against defectors and activists who were sending food and anti-Pyongyang messages in balloons across the border. Millions of anti-North Korea messages have flown across the border through hydrogen balloons for over a decade. The sentiment derives from the goal of erasing the information blackout issue in the country, where all North Korean media outlets are controlled by the state. All radio, TV sets, and smartphones are blocked from accessing the global internet.
Although such cross-border propaganda has existed since the end of the 1953 Korean War, South Korean president Moon Jae-in has vowed to end the activities to no avail. Moon’s party has failed to pass a leaflet ban into law, likely due to his party lacking a majority in Parliament.
South Korea has since urged Pyongyang to honour their past agreements to maintain peace between the two countries. Moon Jae-in has worked vigorously to improve inter-Korean relations. His most notable efforts include setting up denuclearization summits between the two nations. Moreover, in recent events, Moon has publicly discouraged the leaflet and rice campaigns, drawing complaints from defectors who allegedly feel pressured to avoid criticizing North Korea.
Furthermore, Boo Seung-chan, former advisor to South Korea’s defense minister, has noted that Kim Yo Jong’s statements seek to solidify the legitimacy of Kim Jong Un’s authority to rule the country. Experts point out that North Korea is currently undergoing a series of political and economic challenges, for instance the 2019 collapse of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear diplomacy with President Trump. These challenges continue to be aggravated by COVID-19.
Experts and analysts have suggested the leaflets are being used as a scapegoat to increase pressure on the South due to postponed denuclearization talks. Shifting the blame for North Korea’s crises to an external enemy serves as a strategic move to reinforce Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy as a leader. As a result, whether or not the North will follow up on its threats remains unclear.
Several commentators have stressed the need for South Korea to reorganize its priorities for the North Korean administration. South Korean activists have long urged President Moon Jae-in to no longer sacrifice the country’s democratic values and rights to appease their neighbour’s leadership. These observations bring into question if the Moon administration can only truly achieve the peace it desires by confronting the North for its aggressive actions.