North Korea blows up liaison office in escalation of hostilities with Seoul

North Korea has blown up the inter-Korean liaison office near the country’s border with South Korea, marking a sharp escalation in hostilities by Kim Jong Un towards Seoul.

South Korea’s unification ministry said the facility was destroyed on Tuesday. It did not immediately provide further information.

A North Korean statement carried by state media said the office was “completely destroyed” with a “terrific explosion”.

The office was established two years ago during a period of rapprochement in the joint industrial complex of Kaesong, less than 10km from the demilitarised zone that divides the two countries in North Korea. South Korean companies operate factories in the zone, employing labour from the North. 

The office has been closed since January amid sweeping measures by North Korea to isolate itself from the coronavirus pandemic. 

The explosion came just hours after North Korea signalled via state media that its military would potentially enter border areas that had been disarmed after a 2018 summit between Mr Kim and Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president.

Pyongyang’s decision to blow up the facility was the latest in a series of threats from the Kim regime in recent days. The increased hostility has followed complaints by Kim Yo Jong, Mr Kim’s sister and a close adviser, over moves by defector and human rights groups to send anti-Kim material into the closed-off country.

North Korea last week cut its most important communication channels with South Korea’s military, diplomats and the presidential office. That prompted the government in Seoul to crack down on all anti-North Korean material from crossing the border in a bid to improve relations.

The liaison office was established after the leaders of the two Koreas met at Panmunjom in April 2018, and agreed to work towards peaceful relations. This included the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and bringing an end to military hostilities.

Kim Yo Jong, sister and close adviser to Kim Jong Un, expressed anger in recent days after human rights groups sent anti-Kim material into North Korea Kim Yo Jong, sister and close adviser to Kim Jong Un, expressed anger in recent days after human rights groups sent anti-Kim material into North Korea © REUTERS

Mr Moon has sought closer engagement with North Korea, including pushing for projects to help the economy. But he has not broken with the US-led international sanctions regime designed to curb Mr Kim’s nuclear ambitions.

Negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang over the nuclear weapons programme have stalled, despite three meetings over the past two years between Mr Kim and Donald Trump, the US president.

Many North Korea analysts believe Pyongyang’s resumption of hostilities are part of a broader strategy to put pressure on the Trump administration to ease crippling economic sanctions.

Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official, said blowing up the liaison office happened because “North Korea feels betrayed by Trump and still needs the sanctions relief it thinks it’s owed”.

“But attacking the US directly incurs avoidable escalation risks. Targeting South Korea is calibrated aggression,” added Mr Jackson, now an international relations expert at Victoria University of Wellington.

Analysts also warned that Pyongyang has entered into a cycle in which it will seek to manufacture a crisis only to later step back after winning concessions from the international community.

“North Korea has started a provocation cycle with stages of escalation. It is unlikely to jump immediately to a . . . missile launch as those would prompt additional sanctions from the United States,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a North Korea expert at Ewha University in Seoul.