SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea said on Wednesday it had rejected a South Korean offer to send special envoys to ease escalating tension over defiance by North Korean defectors and stalled reconciliation efforts, and it vowed to redeploy troops to border areas.
The North Korean announcements came a day after it blew up a joint liaison office set up on its side of the border as part of a 2018 peace agreement between the two countries’ leaders.
Any moves to invalidate cross-border peace deals pose a major setback to South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to foster more lasting reconciliation with the North.
They could also complicate efforts by U.S. President Donald Trump, already grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and anti-racism protests, to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programmes.
“The solution to the present crisis between the North and the South caused by the incompetence and irresponsibility of the South Korean authorities is impossible and it can be terminated only when proper price is paid,” the North’s KCNA state news agency said.
The North’s Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the Workers’ Party, published photographs showing the liaison office before and after its demolition, alongside a series of KCNA articles and commentaries criticising South Korea.
“Ominous prelude to total catastrophe of North-South relations,” one of the articles was headlined, referring to the destruction of the office.
Tension had been rising this month with North Korea threatening to cut ties with South Korea and retaliate over North Korean defectors in the South sending propaganda leaflets – by balloon or by sea – into North Korea.
South Korea, which had been keen to improve ties with the North, called on the defectors to stop but they said they intended to push ahead with their campaign.
The worsening situation led South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees relations with the North, to offer his resignation, apologising in remarks to reporters for failing to deliver on expectations for peace and prosperity on the peninsula.
On Monday, Moon offered to send his national security adviser Chung Eui-yong and spy chief Suh Hoon as special envoys, KCNA said. But Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and a senior ruling party official, “flatly rejected the tactless and sinister proposal”.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, harshly criticised Moon in another KCNA statement, saying he had failed to implement any of the 2018 pacts and “put his neck into the noose of pro-U.S. flunkeyism”.
South Korea’s presidential Blue House said the criticism of Moon was rude and senseless, and damaged the trust the leaders of the two Koreas had built.
“We will no longer accept such unreasonable behaviour,” Blue House press secretary Yoon Do-han told a briefing.
Moon offered to play a mediator role between Trump and Kim Jong Un as they pulled back from trading threats and insults in 2017, leading to a series of meetings in 2018 and 2019 that were high on symbolism but which failed to achieve a breakthrough on denuclearisation.
In Monday’s speech, which marked the 20th anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit, Moon expressed regret that North Korea-U.S. and inter-Korean relations had not made progress as hoped but asked North Korea to maintain peace deals and return to dialogue.
“In the eyes of the Kims, Moon’s administration gave too much of false hope that it would defy U.S. pressure to move their relations forward,” said Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear envoy.
“But after two years, what they have left is a failed summit with Trump and no progress whatsoever on inter-Korean economic cooperation.”
In a separate KCNA dispatch on Wednesday, a spokesman for the General Staff of the (North) Korean People’s Army said it would dispatch troops to Mount Kumgang and Kaesong near the border, where the two Koreas had carried out joint economic projects in the past.
The spokesman also said police posts that had been withdrawn from the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) would be reinstalled, while artillery units near the western sea border, where defectors frequently send propaganda leaflets drifting in balloons over North Korea, will be reinforced.
The North will also resume sending anti-Seoul leaflets across the border, he added.
South Korea’s defence ministry has urged North Korea to abide by a 2018 inter-Korean military pact, under which both sides vowed to cease “all hostile acts” and dismantled some structures along the DMZ.
Jang Kum Chol, director of North Korea’s United Front Department in charge of cross-border affairs, said the North would never have talks or exchanges with South Korean authorities “who evoke only disgust and nasty feelings”.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel)