On June 16, North Korea blew up a liaison office and de-facto South Korean embassy that represented the détente between the two countries. North Korean officials, including Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, who is believed to follow her brother as the leader of North Korea after his death, justified their radical action by claiming that South Korea was trying to undermine their regime and the agreements they signed in 2018. Therefore, they stated, they could not consider their southern neighbour an ally, leaving economic and political cooperation at an impasse between the two countries.
This step taken by North Korea took the majority of the world by surprise, as no warning from Kim’s regime or provocation by the South preceded the action. Despite North Korea’s reasoning that South Korea has failed to respect the Northern regime and aims to overthrow it, experts have other explanations for the explosion. An accepted theory is that Kim Jong Un is trying to achieve better conditions at the negotiation table with the U.S. and ease the economic sanctions against North Korea. These changes are gradually leading to a slow transformation of society as well, as the citizens are becoming more concerned with personal and family issues. The slow transition stems from the improving connections between the North and the South that started in 2018.
South Korea has not responded to the explosion harshly. President Moon Jae-in has remained open to future collaboration despite the attack, but opposed the North’s aggressiveness and warned against similar further actions that would endanger the country’s tolerance. The Unification Minister of South Korea, Kim Yeon-Chul, resigned from his post following the attack, which may result in a different attitude towards the North by the new minister. However, it is still unclear who will take the position. The U.S. reaction similarly lacked any meaningful reply to the attack, which can be attributed to the high alert level of COVID-19 in America.
Nearly two years ago, President Moon began his work to improve the relationship between South Korea, North Korea and the United States by organizing a summit where all three leaders would be present. At this summit, negotiations ranged from discussions about nuclear weapons to brainstorming how to kickstart trade, railways, and pipelines in the Korean peninsula. The Korean leaders even talked about a possible reunification of their countries and appeared together at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics together. However, these peaceful sentiments were short-lived. Last year, Kim accused Moon that South Korea was spreading anti-Kim pamphlets and that the South Korean politician did not want cooperation but to sabotage his regime.
Sue Mi Terry, a researcher of South and North Korean relations, predicts further provocations by the North which means that the escalation of the threat of conflict is likely in the peninsula. The latest explosion of the de-facto embassy that was the symbol of the Korean détente proves that there is still a road ahead on the way to peace between these two countries.
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