‘Conniving human scum’: North Korea is very angry at the South, but it’s not Seoul’s attention it wants
With North Korean media referring to the South as “conniving” and “human scum,” and communications now cut off between the two, inter-Korean relations risk hitting a dangerously low point. What exactly sparked Pyongyang’s seemingly sudden fit of rage – and is it really one? A closer analysis reveals several factors at play.
It’s raining balloons
What initially sparked the North’s renewed anger against its southern neighbor were anti-DPRK propaganda leaflets sent by defectors and activists across the border. Pyongyang proceeded to call these acts a “heinous provocation” and a “catastrophic situation.” But this isn’t a new problem. Activists in the South have been airdropping hydrogen balloons filled with USBs, South Korean dramas, foreign movies, and information on the Kim regime for well over a decade.
Pyongyang has been lashing out at Seoul almost every day since June 4 in anger over the propaganda leaflets. That day, Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, threatened to withdraw from an inter-Korean military accord, abolish the North-South joint liaison office, and shut down major inter-Korean projects if Seoul failed to put an end to the distribution of the anti-DPRK propaganda.
Regrettably, Seoul wasn’t able to assuage Pyongyang’s concerns fast enough and, on June 9, the North unilaterally terminated all cross-border communication channels with the South. To make matters worse, they threatened it would be only the first in a series of retaliatory actions.
Kim’s sister rises
Although North Korea bad mouthing or threatening the South is nothing new, what is new is who is leading this effort: Kim Yo-jong. Notably, Kim Jong-un has been making less and less public appearances ever since his rumored illness and has only appeared in state media on three occasions since April 12. This has led to a flurry of rumors that the North Korean leader might be grooming his sister to take over power in case anything happens to him.
Still, this is just speculation for now. He might be completely fine and sheltering indoors due to Covid-19 concerns, as Seoul believes, or he might just be using his sister to portray strong, united leadership to show the world his country is still standing strong despite the global events of the past few months.
Whatever the reason is, Kim’s sister has shown the world that she too is a tough force to be reckoned with. She called the defectors who distribute the flyers over the border “human scum little short of wild animals” and “riffraff” betraying their homeland. Last Saturday, she escalated her rhetoric by threatening: “By exercising my power authorized by the Supreme Leader, our Party and the state, I gave an instruction to the arms of the department in charge of the affairs with the enemy to decisively carry out the next action. Our army, too, will determine something for cooling down our people’s resentment and surely carry it out, I believe.” Did she just threaten military action over some flyers?Also on rt.com ‘Optimism faded into dark nightmare’, Pyongyang says 2 years after Trump-Kim summit
It’s not the leaflets
It’s hard for any seasoned Korea-watcher to believe that this conundrum the Koreas are currently in is just because of leaflets distributed across the border through balloons. It isn’t. Sure, the flyers are a nuisance and they do indeed anger the North Korean government, but that alone isn’t enough to warrant such an aggressive stance against Seoul.
As always, North Korea’s actions are layered with various objectives. This was made clear over the weekend through several press releases published by North Korean state media.
On Friday, Pyongyang lashed out at the US by blaming them for being “hell-bent on only exacerbating the situation.” Here is where North Korea’s actual concerns start becoming clear: “The DPRK is still on the U.S. list of targets for preemptive nuclear strike, and all kinds of nuclear strike tools held by the U.S. are aimed directly at the DPRK.”
The key problem here is that North Korea continues to see the US as a threat and don’t feel their actions have been reciprocated. The Friday statement made mention of Pyongyang’s efforts in trying to improve relations with the US—e.g. repatriation of US POW remains, returning hostages, halting nuclear and ICBM tests, etc.—but pointed to a lack of American cooperation and “empty promises.” The statement concluded by saying Pyongyang will “build up more reliable force to cope with the long-term military threats from the U.S.”
Additionally, another press release published on Saturday criticized Seoul for ‘poking their noses’ in DPRK-US matters. This shows that Pyongyang’s true target here isn’t Seoul, but Washington.
No time like the present for US to talk to N. Korea
As the press statements reveal, this most recent inter-Korean spat is not so much about anti-North Korea propaganda flyers but more about Kim Jong-un’s dissatisfaction with the status quo. What Pyongyang actually wants is to get America’s attention, not so much Seoul’s. They hope that by publicly threatening South Korea, they might get a reaction out of Washington.
Given the dire state the US is currently in as well as the upcoming elections, Kim may see Trump as vulnerable at this time and could be using this opening to put pressure on his administration to finally make some concessions. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if Pyongyang suddenly begins constantly threatening to resume nuclear and ICBM tests.
The moment North Korea feels the US doesn’t care anymore, that’s when the nuclear tests will likely resume. In that case, we will be back at square one, similar to the ‘fire and fury’ era of 2017.
Truth is, it’s in the world’s best interests for Washington to keep a dialogue with Pyongyang open. This is much easier to do now under the current administration given the existing, albeit unstable, relationship between Trump and Kim.
The last thing Trump needs right now is for North Korea to restart its nuclear or ICBM tests. That would put a damper on his foreign policy record and negatively impact his chances for re-election. We have to keep in mind that the US is the only state actor that can give North Korea what it wants: a security guarantee.
To do this, the US has to begin making some concessions. A good place to start would be to resume working-level talks and actively move towards the signing of a peace treaty to finally end the Korean War. The gradual reduction of US troops on the peninsula should then follow. It really doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Washington better start waking up and taking action before Kim Jong-un decides to take his nukes out again, threatening not only the region but the entire world.
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