It was Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, who on Saturday warned South Korea against potential military action. A very belligerent tone that is part of a Pyongyang strategy that is currently trying to poison the relations between the two Koreas.
Fire exchange at the border, division of inter-Korean communications, threat of military action: will the noise from boots resurface on the Korean peninsula? Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, helped build escalating tensions in a communicated in a very threatening tone, published Saturday, June 13 by the official press agency KCNA.
She announced that she had asked the “enemy division” to decide on “the next action to be taken” and assured that “army personnel will be determined to do something to prevent outrage from the population [à l’égard de la Corée du Sud, NDLR]”.
Twenty years for the day, after the first inter-Korean summit, meant to pave the way for a more peaceful era in the region, therefore seems the worst-case relationship between the two enemy brothers. Especially since last week, Pyongyang had already struck by interrupting all official communication with his neighbor in the south.
Pyongyang is facing two crises
Seoul noted Kim Yo Jong’s provocative statements by convening his defense cabinet on Sunday. During the process, South Korean President Moon Jae-in called Pyongyang “to stop exacerbating tensions” between the two countries.
Officially, North Korea blames the deterioration of the situation of South Korean activists sending hostiles hostile to Kim Jong-un’s regime across the border. But does any piece of paper motivate North Korea to dig up the gap?
In reality, “there are many threats, but we need to put them in the more general context of North Korea’s situation to understand their scope,” said Antoine Bondaz, a specialist on the Korean Peninsula at the Foundation for Strategic Research. (FRS), contacted by France 24.
The North Korean regime is facing two crises, this expert says. The first is political: “The Hanoi summit in February 2019 between North Korea and the United States is perceived as a personal failure for Kim Jong-un who believes he did not receive enough concessions from Donald Trump,” notes Antoine Bondaz. In addition, the Covid-19 epidemic has further plunged the North Korean economy into decline. Despite the lack of information on this topic, the restrictions on movement, especially between China and North Korea, and the difficulties in getting medical equipment to this country in isolation on the international stage indicate that The price to pay for coronavirus was heavy for Pyongyang.
Prior to this situation, Pyongyang adapted a traditional “enemy dialectic” consisting of blaming its problems on another country, this specialist assures. The role of scapegoat generally falls to the great bad uncle Sam. But in this case, “Donald Trump is the least worst of US presidents that Kim Jong-un may have before him,” notes Antoine Bondaz.
Indeed, since the Hanoi summit, North Korea has more or less disappeared from Trump’s radar. Consequence: “The security situation is much more dangerous than two years ago because Pyongyang was able to continue its nuclear program while increasing its military capabilities without putting too much pressure from the Americans,” Antoine Bondaz analyzes.
To avoid offending Washington, Kim Jong-un turned to his other best enemy: South Korea. The country seems to be the ideal scapegoat. It is no longer of great use to Pyongyang, as its main role – to play the middlemen between North Korea and the United States – has lost weight since Kim Jong-un established a direct diplomatic relationship with Donald Trump. Therefore, there is little risk of hitting their neighbor in the south.
Especially since the North Korean leader is convinced that his counterpart in the South has exhausted his game. “Moon Jae-in has already played all its cards – tourism initiatives between the two Koreas, cultural exchange initiatives, diplomatic gestures – and we realize that because of the international sanctions on North Korea, it can’t do much economically,” concludes Antoine Bondaz .
A sister making “audio box”
But it is still necessary to measure their provocations. Kim Jong-un does not want to be too warring for fear of getting the United States to fly to the aid of its Asian ally. That is why Antoine Bondaz is of the opinion that, at first, one should not expect a display of military force. “The reprisals will first strike symbols of inter-Korean cooperation such as North Korean tourist sites or the diplomatic liaison office between the two countries. Referring to the army, Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea’s leader, simply indicates that the option is on the table,” notes the FRS expert .
Still, the message must be loud and clear enough to be understood. This is where Kim Yo Jong comes in. The fact that she is talking about this issue, and not the official of the Korean Interconnection Department, may be surprising. Multiple mediasaw in that sign that the little sister would be the strong woman of the regime, maybe even Kim Jong-un’s runners.
It would be a little too fast for Antoine Bondaz. Kim Yo Jong only deals with propaganda issues, has no institutional post in relation to inter-Korean issues, nor does he have a seat on the influential State Committee, which unites the regime’s elite. She’s just a replacement. In a regime that extends from the hierarchy, if Kim Jong-un had wanted to make his sister his runner, he would have already placed him in a prominent position.
The most likely explanation is that the North Korean leader uses Kim Yo Jong as a “sound board”. “Abroad, because it is the sister who speaks, the messages will have a much greater media impact,” confirms Antoine Bondaz. Another advantage is that if the situation gets too bad, Pyongyang can “always hire an official to contradict what Kim Yo Jong said,” said the French expert.
Although the inaccurate statements against South Korea do not indicate that Kim Jong-un is ready to take the path to war soon, they should be taken seriously. They are, in fact, the reflection of an increasingly frustrated leader not to see his diplomatic transparency strategy giving him a lifting of financial sanctions. And if his attacks on his neighbor in the south do not change the situation, he may be tempted to switch to higher military speed. After Covid-19, the looming economic downturn and protesting against police violence around the world, the world could do without a new North Korean crisis.