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North Korea Actions at Joint Office Message For Seoul

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wave during a car parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, Sept. 18, 2018.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wave during a car parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, Sept. 18, 2018.

As quickly as North Korea withdrew personnel from a joint liaison office in Kaesong Friday, Pyongyang returned Monday without explanation. The inter-Korean liaison office was opened following the third summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Some analysts have interpreted North Korea’s decision to leave the liaison office as a response to the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioning North Korean entities, and then coming back after the weekend in response to Trump canceling further sanctions, said Bruce Klinger, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation.

“That might be the case,” said Klinger in an email to VOA, “but I don't think we can establish causality there. North Korea tends to take some time to respond.”

Klinger said if it is a signal of some sort, “it's a very vague and roundabout signal of punishing South Korea for actions that the U.S. has taken.”

“I think it's more a continuation of the recent trend after Hanoi, where North Korea seems to be dismissing South Korea,” he added.

Kim Dong-yub, director of research at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University, said it’s inappropriate to over analyze North Korea’s intent.

“We may miss the core message if we reckon this withdrawal only relates to the U.S. and denuclearization. This withdrawal should be viewed as questioning the role of the liaison office,” Kim said, adding, “It also shows [North Korea’s] dissatisfaction with the South.”

He said the North’s actions regarding the joint office was due to the status of inter-Korean relations.

Nam Sung-wook, at the Department of North Korean Studies at Korea University, arrived at a similar conclusion.

North Korea thinks it has an advantage over the South Korean government's North Korea policy, said Nam. “The withdrawal was a sign of dissatisfaction with Seoul, as well as a way to exert pressure on Seoul to persuade the U.S. to lift sanctions or for South Korea to resume inter-Korea economic cooperation.”

However, Klinger notes Pyongyang has been “dismissing” South Korea as a mediator for talks between the United States and North Korea, citing recent remarks by North Korea’s vice foreign minister, calling the action akin to “shooting themselves in the foot.”

“President Moon has been the strongest advocate of reducing sanctions or gaining exemptions from sanctions to provide economic benefits to the North,” said Klinger.

He added, “You would think they would be trying to play up to South Korea, even more, to try to get President Moon to induce Trump to lower sanctions or come back to the table and accept the ‘small deal’ that was being reported in the media [during the Hanoi summit]. So I think it's a bit confusing what North Korea is up to, and even perhaps counterproductive.”

“Pressure from the cumulative effects of 11 U.N. resolutions, U.S., and international laws was what brought North Korea back to the negotiating table,” said Klinger. “Only continued and enhanced sanctions measures, coupled with pragmatic diplomacy and enhancing allied deterrent capabilities, may induce North Korea to denuclearize.”

Implications for Moon

Lack of progress on inter-Korean projects could be a contributing factor in South Korean President Moon’s approval rating dipping to 44 percent, according to Gallop Korea. That’s down from 60 percent following the September Pyongyang summit and 83 percent at Moon’s peak approval rating.

While Moon’s approval ratings have decreased over the past six months, “he still is at numbers that many other world leaders would be envious of,” said Klinger.

“More than a lack of political capital, he's really hindered by U.N. and U.S. sanctions,” Klinger said. “Unlike his progressive predecessors, he can't just catapult bags of cash north of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), because virtually any economic engagement with the North is or risks being a violation of U.N. resolutions and or U.S. law.”

After two years of engagement, two U.S.-North Korea summits, and three inner-Korean summits, Nam said denuclearization is difficult to achieve, despite meetings at the highest levels.

“It is necessary to judge the sustainability and feasibility of talks through a review of the policy,” he said.

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    Steve Miller

    Steve Miller is a veteran broadcast journalist with over a decade of experience. He is currently the host of VOA's Flashpoint Ukraine daily radio program, going beyond the headlines to put the day's events into a broader, global context. Before coming to VOA in 2016, Steve  covered the Indo-Pacific region while living in South Korea, where he explored the region's rich history and culture while reporting on geopolitics, human rights, and tourism.