Escalation Alert on the Korean Peninsula, North Pulls Out from Joint Liaison Office | Security Risks Asia Made with Humane Club

Escalation Alert on the Korean Peninsula, North Pulls Out from Joint Liaison Office

Published Mar 23, 2019
Updated Apr 21, 2020

Recent developments on the Korean Peninsula with reference to the process of detente that was set into motion last January with a New Year’s message from Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea) leader Kim Jong-un denote a breakdown or at best a long hiatus. There are also ominous signs of an escalation as the three cornered negotiating process between the United States, North and South Korea (Republic of Korea) may be deadlocked.

This was evident as early as on February 27-28 when the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader in Hanoi ended without a deal. In fact it did not even last for the planned time and ended abruptly indicating that there was no common meeting ground.

North Korea has been constantly rattling up tensions thereafter with signs of activity on a satellite launch site and on 22 March North Korean officials pulled out from an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong.

North notified the South that it will withdraw from the joint office located in Kaesong just north of the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas. Kaesong is also the location of a joint industrial zone which had been operational till early 2017, when South Korea pulled out from the same after a series of nuclear and missile tests by North Korea. The process of restarting the same has gathered some momentum.

This has possibly led to concerns in South Korea with an emergency meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) held the same day at the Cheong Wa Dae or the Presidential office, Chaired by Chung Eui-yong, the top security adviser to President Moon Jae-in,  “The standing members of the NSC discussed the North’s withdrawal from the joint liaison office and related measures,” a short statement was reported by South Korean news agency, Yonhap.

South Korea was hopeful as no unusual signs were detected at the satellite launch site for over a week, but these hopes were shattered after the weekly liaison meeting between South Korean envoy Chun and his North Korean counterpart, Jon Jong-su was not held after breakdown of the summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump on 28 February.

More over on 22 March U.S. President Donald Trump stated that he was cancelling sanctions that were to be placed on North Korea in the future, but this is unlikely to have an impact.

North Korea’s state-run online publication Meari Meari said. “The South has not been taking any practical actions to improve inter-Korean relations fundamentally while trying to accommodate the whims of the US,” it said. 

Clearly North Korea wants to send a signal to the South that the process was not only failing with the United  States but also with Seoul.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been leading the process of detente having placed huge political capital at a breakthrough. The two leaders Moon and Kim Jong-un have held three summits and the latter was expected to visit Seoul but that is now off the table.

Critics are blaming the United States for seeking to ease sanctions only after full denuclearisation by the North, on the other hand it is evident that Kim Jong-un had proposed a sequential process. As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted, sequencing was necessary but proved difficult.

While there were some gains made with the US and North Korea opening talks in June last year at a summit in Singapore, stalling of the same in Hanoi in February has outlined that there are limits to which the strategy of maximum pressure during talks would help.

Given North Korea’s diplomatic disruptive diplomatic style it is difficult to predict what the next steps could be.

In case it ups the ante demonstrative missile launch could be in the offing. What could be the reaction of the Trump administration in Washington is also unclear.

While hoping for the best, preparing for an escalation could be a safe option.