In February 2018, Kim Yo Jong was the friendly face of North Korea, smiling and waving as she joined the crowds in South Korea at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
The two Koreas had entered the stadium together at the opening ceremony and fielded a joint women’s ice hockey team. Kim was not only the first member of the North’s ruling family to visit the South, but also shook President Moon Jae-in’s hand. Relations were set to improve.
This month, however, it was Kim, the younger sister of the country’s leader Kim Jong Un, who was repeatedly cited in bellicose warnings directed at South Korea, apparently over the leaflets floated across the border or along the river by defector groups, but really about the North’s increasing frustration about Seoul’s inability to deliver on cooperation promises or convince the United States to ease crippling economic sanctions.
The events were a “manufactured crisis”, said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a reader in international relations at King’s College London and an expert on the two Korean Peninsula.
On Wednesday, the eve of the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, state media reported that Kim Jong Un had instead decided to suspend the military actions his sister had threatened.
“North Korea feels that it hasn’t received the concessions it was looking for from South Korea and the United States at the summits over the past few years,” Pacheco Pardo told Al Jazeera. “The heightening of tensions is to signal displeasure at what has happened and that something different is needed.”
State media reported, Kim’s step back reflected an analysis of “prevailing conditions”.
North and South have been stuck in an uneasy truce since 1953 when an armistice brought an end to the fighting in which millions of civilians had died and militaries on all sides had suffered heavy casualties. A peace treaty has never been formalised, and in recent decades, Pyongyang has lurched between engagement, isolation and the kind of headline-grabbing act exemplified by its decision to blow up the joint liaison office in Kaesong.
That move – a week after Pyongyang said it had severed all communication links with Seoul – effectively signalled the end of the Panmunjon Declaration and the latest round of engagement which had begun in 2018 under Moon.
It was “an attempt to make a clean break with the Moon administration,” noted a commentary in 38 North, a website devoted to the analysis of North Korea from the Stimson Center in Washington, DC.
The heightened rhetoric followed a series of missile tests last year after the second summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump broke down over sanctions relief, and a later attempt to revive denuclearisation talks foundered. Kim had set a yearend deadline for the US to shift its stance.
In targeting Seoul, and dismissing Moon’s offer of envoys, Pyongyang might have been hoping that the president, who has made inter-Korean cooperation a cornerstone of his administration, would lean on the US to ease some of the sanctions imposed as a result of the North’s nuclear testing.
Instead, the South responded more forcefully than usual, saying that by criticising Moon, Kim had “fundamentally damaged the trust between the two leaders”. The unification minister resigned.
Jay Song, an academic at the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne, says the internal politics in the South also requires scrutiny, and notes that the Unification Ministry cannot do anything without a green light from the National Security Council in the presidential Blue House.
“The National Security Council are internationalists [and] prioritise the Republic of Korea-US alliance over the Unification Ministry’s ethno-nationalist mandate on improving inter-Korean relations,” said Song, who is the Korea Foundation senior lecturer in Korean Studies. “The choice for South Korea is not an easy one, especially when the North wants to be a nuclear state.”
South Korea has struggled with how to deal with its northern neighbour since the end of Japanese colonisation led to the partition of the Korean Peninsula between the Soviet Union-backed North and the US-backed South.
Pyongyang, which has long dismissed Seoul as a “puppet” of the US, sent its troops across the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, in a move that led to UN intervention, the mobilisation of US and Commonwealth forces, and brought in Chinese troops fighting in support of the North Koreans.