This week, North Korea’s Kim family dynasty imposed a new test of loyalty on its southern neighbors and found them lacking. Inter-Korean relations imploded with the North’s subsequent demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office at Kaesong on the direct orders of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong.
In her capacity as first vice department director of the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, Kim Yo Jong issued an unusually coarse June 4 public statement where she complained that by allowing North Korean defector groups to send balloons containing leaflets critical of the regime into North Korea, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in had failed to keep promises he made at the April 2018 Panmunjom summit under the pretext of “freedom of expression.” She threatened the shutdown of the inter-Korean liaison office at Kaesong Industrial Complex.
Kim Yo Jong’s statement precipitated a debate within South Korea about legal steps that might restrict the launch of leaflets into North Korea, including the passage of new laws curbing the launch of balloons containing leaflets in local jurisdictions near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The Moon administration faced a North Korean loyalty test, whereby the North Koreans sought appeasement measures that would not only prevent the penetration of external criticism into North Korea, but also suppress criticism of North Korea within democratic South Korea.
North Korean irritations with disloyalty in South Korea undoubtedly go even deeper. North Korea also seeks to muzzle criticism of North Korea conveyed by North Korean defectors such as Thae Yong-ho and Ji Seong-ho, who were elected to South Korea’s National Assembly in April. The example of these defectors exercising freedom of speech in their criticisms of the North Korean leadership provides a powerful counter example to the fealty to Kim Jong Un requires inside North Korea as a condition of survival.
On June 13, Kim Yo Jong made a second statement ordering the demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office, a decision that was carried out on June 16 at 2:50 p.m. Her statement dismissed Moon administration efforts to address North Korean concerns regarding the leaflets, suggesting that North Korea’s plan for retaliation was premeditated. In a demonstration of her authority and power to control institutions within North Korea, Kim Yo Jong ordered the destruction of the inter-Korean liaison office by authorization of the “Supreme Leader, our Party and the state,” and hinted at an unspecified future order to the Korean People’s Army.
Against the backdrop of swirling speculation about Kim Jong Un’s health and the line of succession, Kim Yo Jong’s statement and accompanying hints that North Korea is prepared to destroy the 2018 inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement and reintroduce a North Korean military presence in and around the Kaesong Industrial Complex, Mount Geumgang tourist area, and DMZ is reminiscent of the military initiation rituals and provocations attributed to Kim Jong Un in 2010 to provide him with credibility as a military commander.
The trashing of the Comprehensive Military Agreement would not only deprive the Moon administration of its major accomplishment in easing inter-Korean tensions, but also send a clear message to the North Korean people that the South remains the enemy. This message challenges the influence of decades of infiltration of South Korean cultural influences into North Korea. It will enable the Kim family to more strictly implement the coercive measures necessary to assure political loyalty.
More worrisome is the likelihood of a near-term violent inter-Korean clash if indeed Kim Yo Jong is completing an initiation ritual similar to the one Kim Jong Un completed a decade ago. The purpose of the ritual would be to qualify and empower her as a potential successor to Kim Jong Un in the event of his incapacitation or death. Both the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyongdo were accredited to Kim Jong Un as evidence of his leadership and military qualifications, and both drew blood. If Kim Yo Jong is on the same track, Moon’s biggest challenge will be to safeguard South Korea’s security while managing and containing a military crisis with North Korea.
This article was originally published by Forbes.