The sister of North Korea’s leader has warned of retaliatory measures against South Korea that could involve the military, in the latest escalation of tensions over defectors from North Korea who have been sending back propaganda and food.
The threat comes as Seoul said on Sunday that Pyongyang should honor past agreements signed between the two countries.
“The South and the North should try to honour all inter-Korean agreements reached,” the South’s reunification ministry said in a statement. “The government is taking the current situation seriously.”
On Saturday, Kim Yo Jong, who serves unofficially as one of Kim Jong Un’s top aides, was quoted by state news agency KCNA as saying that the North “will soon take its next action.”
“By exercising my power authorised by the Supreme Leader, our Party and the state, I gave an instruction to the … department in charge of the affairs with [the] enemy to decisively carry out the next action,” Kim said.
“I feel it is high time to surely break with the South Korean authorities. We will soon take a next action.”
Her statement, which did not say what the next action could be, came days after South Korea took legal action against defectors who have been sending material such as rice and anti-North leaflets, usually by balloon over the heavily fortified border or in bottles by sea.
North Korea said it has been angered by the defectors and, to mark its displeasure, it has during the past week severed inter-Korean hotlines and is threatening to close a liaison office between the two governments.
As part of the effort to improve ties with the North, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has sought to discourage the leaflet and rice campaigns, and defectors have complained of pressure to avoid criticism of North Korea.
Analysts say North Korea appears to be using the leaflet issue to increase pressure on South Korea amid stalled denuclearisation talks.
“The leaflets are an excuse or justification to raise the ante, manufacture a crisis, and bully Seoul to get what it wants,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group, a Belgium-based independent non-profit organisation.
Pyongyang feels betrayed and misled by Seoul’s prediction that the United States would lift some sanctions in exchange for North Korea closing its nuclear reactor site, and is upset that leaflets and US-South Korea military drills continue, Kim said.
“They’re upset that Seoul has done nothing to change the environment and is again telling Seoul to stay out of its nuclear talks with Washington,” the analyst added.
North Korea has a long track record of dialling up the pressure on South Korea when it does not get what it wants from the US. Its threats to abandon inter-Korean agreements came after months of frustration about Seoul’s refusal to defy US-led sanctions and restart joint economic projects.
Experts added that North Korea, which has mobilised people for massive demonstrations condemning defectors, is deliberately censuring South Korea to rally its public and shift attention away from a bad economy, which likely has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.