North Korea Army 'Fully Ready' Amid Threat to Redeploy Troops at Border

North Korean state media has warned that its armed forces are "fully ready" for combat amid deteriorating relations between Pyongyang and Seoul, punctuated Tuesday with the dramatic destruction of the inter-Korean liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong.

The office was opened in 2018 amid an inter-Korean push for closer dialogue and cooperation. But frustration has since grown in Pyongyang over a lack of progress in talks with Seoul and Washington, D.C., plus anger at propaganda balloons floated into the North by defector groups across the border in the South.

Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong, threatened last week to destroy the building, which has been empty since January due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. The military blew the building up on Tuesday while South Korea military officials watched from the nearby border.

On Tuesday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency carried a statement from General Staff of the Korean People's Army saying the military was keeping "a close watch on the current situation" in which North-South relations "are turning worse and worse."

The army, it said, is "getting itself fully ready for providing a sure military guarantee to any external measures to be taken by the party and government." KCNA also carried a commentary that accused the South Korean defense ministry of "bragging and bluffing, rattling the dialogue partner and stoking a confrontational atmosphere."

The commentary said the destruction of the liaison office could be a prelude to a "total catastrophe" for cross-border relations.

North Korea's military has already announced it had been considering an "action plan" to re-occupy areas demilitarized under a 2018 inter-Korean agreement. State media said its forces would "turn the front line into a fortress."

The situation on the Korean peninsula has deteriorated significantly since the surprise detente between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington in 2018. Denuclearization and sanction relief negotiations have stalled while the North has returned to belligerent rhetoric and regular weapon tests—though has maintained its moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests.

The North is now pushing back against South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who won a landslide re-election in April. "Pyongyang feels that they have very little to lose in their relations with the South," said Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

"They've been very dissatisfied with the Moon administration's way of coping with the American position on sanctions relief, which is: 'Not until you give us everything we want,'" Pollack told Newsweek.

Still, Jenny Town—the managing editor of the specialist North Korean analysis website 38 North—said Tuesday's stunt should come as no surprise. "Kim Yo Jong said they were going to do it, the KPA said they were going to do it," she explained.

"Of all the things that North Korea could have done, it's sort of the least provocative—it's on North Korean soil, they'd already evacuated the building."

Town added there is likely a domestic element to the office's destruction—proof that Kim is still in control despite the recent lack of progress. "North Korea has spent the past two years building up expectations of new economic opportunities of potential sanctions relief...And from their perspective, they didn't really get much for it," she said.

"I think there's some reclaiming of the narrative there and showing to the domestic audience that the leadership is still in charge and decisive and that they can handle anything."

Observers have long speculated as to if and when Kim might end his nuclear and ICBM moratoriums. The U.S. presidential election is approaching, as are the country's July 4 celebrations, joint U.S.-South Korean military maneuvers in August and the Korean Workers' Party founding anniversary in October.

But the destruction of the liaison building should not necessarily be seen as a portent to significant escalation. "I don't think this is a 'hold on to your hats' moment," Pollack said. "It's certainly not a good moment for inter-Korean relations, but the indications are that this is limited in scope and that they're being very measured about this—and very public."

John Nilsson-Wright, a Korea Foundation fellow at the Chatham House think tank and a senior lecturer at Cambridge University, said the liaison office demolition shows Kim "taking a tough stance," even though he has avoided escalating in a conventional conflict manner.

"The North is going to be cautious about doing things that are out of the conventional playbook, like another set of missile tests," he predicted.

"I don't think they're suddenly going to launch another intermediate or long range ballistic missile," Nilsson-Wright told Newsweek. "It would be more in keeping at this stage to engage in other low level provocation."

Indeed, explicitly threatening South Korea might compel Moon to take a tougher stance towards Pyongyang to fend off conservative domestic attacks, ultimately making Pyongyang's position less favorable.

Town likewise suggested that the next North Korean steps will likely be more "symbolic" ones that "can be construed as provocative," but in real terms carry "low provocative value."

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South Korean soldiers walk along a road in Inje county near South Korea's northeastern border, on June 16, 2020. ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images/Getty