Is this a negotiating tactic, or a firm decision to go back to a more hostile posture? The Kim regime abruptly pulled out of a liaison office in Kaesong, leaving their South Korea partner Moon Jae-in’s government wondering what comes next. At least they haven’t been evicted — yet:
North Korea abruptly withdrew from a liaison office with South Korea on Friday, in a major setback for Seoul just hours after Washington imposed the first new sanctions on the North since the U.S.-North Korea summit broke down last month.
The office, which opened last year, had marked renewed cooperation between the North and South that were until then only in contact through telecommunications. …
The North said it “is pulling out with instructions from the superior authority,” according to a Unification Ministry statement. It didn’t say whether North Korea’s withdrawal of staff would be temporary or permanent.
According to the South Korean statement, the North added that it “will not mind the South remaining in the office” and that it would notify the South about practical matters later. Seoul’s Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung told reporters that South Korea plans to continue to staff the Kaesong liaison office normally and that it expects the North will continue to allow the South Koreans to commute to the office. He said Seoul plans to staff the office with 25 people on Saturday and Sunday.
Seoul is taking a careful approach to the development, calling it “regrettable” but not necessarily a permanent breach:
NPR reminded readers of the liaison office’s purpose:
The inter-Korea liaison office was opened in September 2018 as a way to establish full-time, person-to-person interaction between the two Koreas.
At the time, South Korean Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon announced that with the office in place, “South and North Korea can hold face-to-face discussions 24 hours a day and every day of the year on matters concerning improving inter-Korean ties and promoting peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.”
The office was created following a thawing of tensions that resulted from one-on-one meetings last year between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, followed by a summit in June between the North Korean leader and President Trump. However, a similar Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi earlier this month came to an early close amid disagreements concerning U.S. sanctions and Pyongyang’s failure to denuclearize.
Both sides have recently ramped up pressure to get better negotiating positions, if and when talks begin again. The US imposed penalties on two Chinese companies for violating existing sanctions, which might have prompted this as a retaliation. The fact that North Korea didn’t outright close the office (which is on their side of the DMZ) is perhaps a subtle signal from Pyongyang that they want to leave their diplomatic options open, but only if both Washington and Seoul offer enticements to bring them back to the table.
This is an old tactic by Pyongyang, of course. Kim’s father Kim Jong-il was a past master at wringing concessions on food and fuel out of the US, Japan, and South Korea for not much action in the end. After getting disappointed by the outcome in Hanoi, Kim Jong-un must have thought that it couldn’t hurt to trot out the old playbook.
Pyongyang made its demands known in the aftermath of Hanoi. It wants some concessions on sanctions as a condition for further engagement, plus they’d like to see John Bolton and Mike Pompeo out of the way. Trump’s hanging tough on all fronts, though we’ll see whether this move prompts some softening on those positions — or at least from Moon Jae-in, who’s political standing relies more on progress with Kim than does Trump’s.
Update: And here we go …
It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea. I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2019
BREAKING: In a tweet, President Trump has ordered the US Treasury Dept.’s newly announced North Korea-related sanctions to be rescinded because, the White House says, "President Trump likes" Kim Jong Un “and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”
— NBC News (@NBCNews) March 22, 2019