North Korea destroyed an inter-Korean liaison office on its side of the border on Tuesday, in a sudden escalation of tensions after days of threats against the South over anti-Pyongyang leaflets that were being sent by defectors into its territory.
“North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office,” the South Korean unification ministry confirmed shortly after the explosion at 2:49pm local time.
Smoke was observed rising from an area close to the industrial park in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, the Yonhap News Agency said.
The first diplomatic mission of its kind, the inter-Korean liaison office was established in September 2018 as part of a series of projects aimed at reducing tensions between the two Koreas.
South Korea spent at least 9.78 billion won (US$8.6 million) in 2018 to renovate the building, which stood as a gleaming blue glass structure in the otherwise drab industrial city.
South Korean military footage of the explosion at the inter-Korean office in the border town of Kaesong.
Total destruction by the looks of it... pic.twitter.com/0BLGlsC5dv
— Laura Bicker (@BBCLBicker) June 16, 2020
Its destruction came after Kim Yo Jong, the increasingly powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said at the weekend: "Before long, a tragic scene of the useless north-south joint liaison office completely collapsed would be seen."
North Korea confirmed the explosion via state media late on Tuesday afternoon, stating the office was targeted “corresponding to the mindset of the enraged people to surely force human scum and those, who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes,” reported Reuters.
Since early June, North Korea has lashed out at Seoul over defector groups sending anti-Pyongyang messages and supplies over the border, issuing a series of threats against South Korea unless it takes action to stop the long-running activist activities.
Last week, Pyongyang cut off communications with the South, refusing to pick up a phone line that had been used for a regular twice daily courtesy call.
In an effort to placate the North Koreans and get stalled peace talks back on track, the South Korean authorities, under President Moon Jae-in, stepped up border controls to block activists and took legal action against defector groups for sending messages into the North via balloons and other means.
However, their efforts – which have been criticised by human rights groups as sacrificing freedom of speech at the behest of an authoritarian regime – appear to have been in vain.
On Tuesday morning, hours before destroying the office, the North issued a warning that its army was ready to go into action against the South and may “advance into demilitarised zones” and turn the frontline into a “fortress.”
"Our army is keeping a close watch on the current situation in which North-South relations are turning worse and worse," the General Staff of the Korean People's Army said in a statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency, reported by Yonhap.
The KPA is studying "an action plan for taking measures to make the army advance again into the zones that had been demilitarised under the north-south agreement, turn the front line into a fortress and further heighten the military vigilance against the south," it said.
Analysts believe the scale of the North’s vitriolic threats suggest that the activities of defector groups are not the main point of contention, but that Pyongyang is acting on its simmering anger over the collapse of denuclearisation talks with the United States.
Talks over the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear and weapons programme in exchange for the lifting of severe international economic sanctions against the regime have not recovered since Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump abruptly ended a failed February 2019 summit in Vietnam.
"The blowing up of the liaison office shows how the DPRK followed through on one of Kim Yo-jong's threats issued a few days ago. North Korea's statements are not all bluster, and they want the international community to take them seriously,” said Edward Howell, a North Korea expert at the University of Oxford.
“We must watch in anticipation as to further moves: Kim Yo-jong ambiguously said the next step would be a military maneouvre. After the September 2018 inter-Korean summit, the two Koreas signed a key military agreement to reduce tension: will the North renege on it? It is not unlikely."
Following the explosion, President Moon convened an emergency meeting of top officials from the National Security Council.
Kim Yeon-chul, the unification minister told members of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee that the explosion had been “partly preannounced” and that "(The country) needs to study more details of the situation.”