North Korea - South Korea

Chronology from May 2020 to Aug 2020

: ROK Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo tells lawmakers that Kim Yo Jong, though formally a WPK CC first vice departmental director, appears to be overseeing North Korea’s strategy toward South Korea and the US.

: In a report to lawmakers, MOU says a “triple whammy” – sanctions, COVID-19, and floods – is slowing the DPRK economy, jeopardizing targets set for October’s 75th Party founding anniversary. The Ministry vowed to keep pushing for humanitarian inter-Korea cooperation, and to seek opportunities for “small-scale trading”.

: ROK lawmakers inform media that the barter deal will not go ahead, saying Vice Unification Minister Suh Ho told the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee that one of the DPRK partners is under sanctions. MOU, however, denies that the project has been scrapped.

: MOU reveals that Seoul has approved plans by two unnamed NGOs to send coronavirus-related items, such as masks and protective clothing, to North Korea. The consignments are worth 180 and 300 million won (respectively $151,000 and $253,000).

: MOU Lee calls for inter-Korean cooperation against “disasters and catastrophes that have no boundaries,” also pledging “concrete plans … in three areas: health, prevention of infections and climate.” In a separate meeting, he tells firms invested in the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) that he will “actively seek ways to resume” its operations.

: National Intelligence Service (NIS) tells lawmakers that Kim Jong Un, though still absolute leader, has partially delegated authority to his sister Kim Yo Jong, whom it calls the “de facto No. 2,” and two pairs of senior economic and military figures. One aim, it suggests, is to “relieve stress … and avert culpability in the event of policy failure.”

: North Korea unexpectedly announces that the “Eighth Congress of the WPK will be convened in January, Juche 110(2021).” It was not due until May, a milder season.

: Meeting with US Ambassador Harry Harris, Unification Minister Lee calls for upgrading the allies’ joint forum on North Korea policy to “Working Group Version 2.0.” Critics suggest this is actually a downgrade, since the goal is more autonomy for Seoul to follow its own path with Pyongyang – regardless of Washington.

: Joint US-ROK military drills, scaled down and largely computer-based this year, kick off two days late after a Korean participant tested positive for COVID-19. They end on Aug. 28.

: MOU launches a rare inspection of 25 NGOs registered with it, with more to follow. 13 are run by North Korean defectors. The same day, Seoul Administrative Court accepts a plea by Keunsaem, one of two groups whose operating license the ministry revoked in July, to suspend that decision. Legal proceedings will continue.

: Yonhap weighs pros and cons of proposed barter deal (Aug. 5, and Aug. 24). It could put North-South ties back on track – or fall foul of international sanctions and US disapproval.

: Yonhap reports that the UN has granted a sanctions waiver for the ROK’s Gyeonggi provincial government to provide a greenhouse system and related materials, worth $368,000, for a nutrition project in the DPRK’s Nampo city and South Pyongan province. It is not stated whether Pyongyang will accept this aid.

: ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) say that amid heavy rainfall, floodgates of North Korea’s Hwanggang Dam on the Imjin river remain partly open. Four times recently the North has discharged water from the dam without warning, contravening a 2009 accord reached after a similar incident caused flash floods which drowned six South Korean campers. On Aug. 5 Seoul urged Pyongyang to give due notice, to no response.

: After heavy rains, MND says it is looking out for North Korean mines which might have been swept out of the DMZ into South Korea. Some just look like wooden boxes.

: MOU is reportedly reviewing a proposed inter-Korean barter deal. Unification Nonghyup, an ROK farmers’ group, signed a 150 million won ($126,710) deal in June with two DPRK companies to swap 167 tons of Southern sugar for Northern liquors, candies, teas et al. Unification Minister Lee had voiced support for such small-scale barter.

: MOU denies that its upcoming audit of civic groups affiliated to it targets defectors, insisting that its criteria are strictly performance-based.

: UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, tells MOU that its planned inspection of defector activist groups should not undermine efforts to improve the DPRK rights situation.

: Park Jie-won starts work as South Korea’s new spy chief, a day after his National Assembly confirmation hearing. He was grilled about his role in transferring $450 million to North Korea around the June 2000 summit, for which he was later jailed.

: South Korea acknowledges that a defector did swim back into North Korea around July 18 from Ganghwa island, as claimed by North Korea. It adds that there is no evidence he has COVID-19. Other reports name him as Kim, aged 24, and claim he was facing charges of raping a fellow defector.

: An emergency enlarged meeting of the WPK CC Politburo is called, after a “runaway” (defector) who illicitly returned home to Kaesong on July 18 is suspected of having “the vicious virus.” KJU orders a lockdown of Kaesong and other measures, to avert “a deadly and destructive disaster.” The lockdown is lifted three weeks later.

: Lee faces lively and robust confirmation hearing. Ex-DPRK diplomat Thae Yong-ho presses him on whether he was pro-Pyongyang in his youth. Lee is confirmed as the new MOU, taking up his post on July 27.

: MOU nominee Lee suggests that “humanitarian areas related to eating, suffering and things that people want to see before they die” (i.e. family reunions and visits) are fit matters for inter-Korean cooperation without any need to consult Washington.

: Both MOU and the nominee to head it, Lee In-young, aver that suing North Korea for blowing up the joint liaison office is not a viable way to proceed.

: An aide to Im Jong-seok (see July 3) says Im is keen to promote cooperation between cities in North and South Korea, via a nonprofit foundation he heads.

: Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), an ROK state think tank, says Kim Jong Un made only 19 public appearances in the first half of 2020. During 2017-19 he averaged 40-50 in the equivalent period. KINU attributes this to COVID-related caution.

: Jeong Se-hyun, former Unification Minister and current executive vice chair of the presidential National Unification Advisory Council (NUAC), calls on the next MOU to dissolve the joint US-ROK working group that coordinates policies on North Korea: “Why on earth did such a thing as the explosion of the joint liaison office take place? It’s because the working group held back inter-Korean relations every single step of the way.”

: MOU says it has approved 16 projects by NGOs to aid in the first half of this year. Two are coronavirus-related. It does not name the organizations involved.

: In another largely symbolic case, South Korean lawyer files suit against Kim Yo Jong and Gen. Pak Jong Chon, CGS of the KPA, over last month’s office demolition. Prosecutors duly open an enquiry on July 16. Plaintiff Lee Kyung-jae notes that under DPRK criminal law, intentional destruction of state property can be punished with life imprisonment.

: Two elderly former POWs whom the DPRK did not repatriate in 1953—they only escaped half a century later—win a landmark, if symbolic, legal case. Seoul Central District Court orders North Korea and Kim Jong Un to pay each man 21 million won ($17,550) for 33 months of forced labor during 1953-56. This is the first time an ROK court has acknowledged its formal jurisdiction over North Korea and issued a compensation order.

: Moon reshuffles several senior security and diplomatic positions. Lee In-young, parliamentary leader of the ruling Democrats (DP), becomes Unification Minister. Park Jie-won, another politician, will lead the National Intelligence Service. Suh Hoon moves from heading the NIS to be Moon’s National Security Advisor. The previous NSA, Chung Eui-yong, becomes a special adviser, as does Im Jong-seok, Moon’s former chief of staff. All four new appointees are well connected in Pyongyang.

: Because of COVID-19, the number of North Korean defectors reaching the South in the second quarter was a record low, according to MOU. Just 12 arrived, compared to 135 in the first quarter and 320 in Q2 last year. The annual flow has steadily declined in the Kim Jong Un era, from 2,400 in 2010 to 1,407 in 2019.

: In rare criticism, Moon Chung-in, one of President Moon’s most dovish and influential long-time advisers, calls on Pyongyang to explain its demolition of the liaison office. Built with 17 billion won ($14.2 million) of ROK taxpayers’ money, this was “a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation and peace,” so “it is hard for our people to accept that the North unilaterally blew it up like a show.”

: MOU calls Kim’s suspension of military plans “positive behavior.” It adds that DPRK media have “withdrawn articles critical of South Korea en masse” (this seems to mean they added no new ones; the old ones remain up). ROK military sources say the North has begun removing propaganda loudspeakers it installed just days before near the DMZ.

: Speaking at Seoul Air Base on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, President Moon urges North Korea to “boldly embark on an endeavor to end the most sorrowful war in world history”—while warning that “our military has strength to ward off any threat.” Saying that inter-Korean competition is over, Moon notes that South Korea’s GDP is over 50 times the North’s and its trade is 400 times larger.

: Park Sang-hak, leader of Fighters for a Free North Korea, claims his group defied tight police surveillance to fly leaflets into the North. ROK authorities doubt that any got there, given wind conditions. MOU warns Park he will face “strict measures.” On June 26 police search his office; he refuses them entry to his house.

: At what KCNA calls “a preliminary meeting of the Fifth Session of the Seventh Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea,” chaired by Kim Jong Un, the CMC suspends the KPA General Staff’s “plans of military action toward the south”. North Korea’s campaign thus ends as suddenly as it began.

: North Korea keeps sending small groups of troops to border sentry posts for bush clearance and road maintenance, according to anonymous official source quoted by Yonhap. It adds, there is no sign of military preparations, which would require at least platoon-level movements.

: MOU responds: “It is very regrettable that North Korea unveiled via a media outlet its plan to send massive anti-South Korea leaflets (sic), and we demand its immediate halt.”

: Pyongyang threatens to send “leaflets of punishment” south, launched by students: “The south Korean authorities will face really horrible time.” It reiterates this threat on June 21 and 22, claiming to have printed 12 million leaflets—images show Moon Jae-in’s face in an ash-tray, smeared with fag-ends and dirt—and that 3,000 balloons are ready. In the event nothing happens.

: A propos defector activists, MOU vows: “In close cooperation with the police and local authorities, the government will beef up its crackdown, including the response on the ground.” One such group, Keunsaem, says it is temporarily suspending plans to send plastic bottles containing rice to North Korea from Gangwha island on June 21.

: Blue House announces that Moon has accepted Kim Yeon-chul’s resignation as Minister of Unification, offered two days earlier.

: Blue House calls Kim Yo Jong’s attack “rude” and “senseless”: “We won’t tolerate any more of North Korea’s indiscreet rhetoric and act.” It also condemns the North’s disclosure of its special envoy proposal as a breach of “basic etiquette.”

: UFD’s Jang Kum Chol weighs in: “We have no idea to sit together with the authorities of the south side who evoke only disgust and nasty feelings. [There] will be neither exchange nor cooperation with the [South] in the future. And there will be no word to be exchanged. It is our stand that we had better regard everything that happened between the north and the south as an empty dream. … [The] enemy is the enemy, after all.”

: In her longest (almost 2,000 words) and rudest—even she calls it “a bomb of words” —diatribe yet, headlined “Honeyed Words of Impudent Man Are Disgusting,” Kim Yo Jong flays Moon’s June 15 speeches as “a string of shameless and impudent words full of incoherence”, and calls it “sickening” to hear this “spate of flunkeyist jargon.”

: Pyongyang reveals and spurns a secret Southern offer on June 15 to send special envoys North. Kim Yo Jong “flatly reject[s] the tactless and sinister proposal.”

: KPA General Staff says troops will reoccupy Kaesong and Kumgang former joint venture zones. “Civil police posts” withdrawn from the DMZ will be “set up again,” front line artillery units will be reinforced, and “all kinds of regular military exercises in the areas close to the boundary” will resume.

: North Korea destroys joint liaison office in Kaesong with “a terrific explosion,” citing “the mindset of the enraged people to surely force human scum and those, who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes.” An adjacent building, once the management office for the Kaesong Industrial Complex, also appears seriously damaged.

: Under headline “Our Army Is Fully Ready to Go into Action: KPA General Staff,” KCNA reports that North Korea’s military is, inter alia, “studying an action plan for taking measures to make the army advance again into the zones that had been demilitarized under the north-south agreement.”

: In two speeches on the 20th anniversary of the first North-South summit, President Moon regrets that “inter-Korean relations have not progressed in a straight line” and urges Pyongyang “not to close the window on talks.” Still, “We will usher in an era, without fail, when South and North Korea band together and cooperate for peace and prosperity.”

: Kim Yo Jong issues statement. Extracts: “I feel it is high time to surely break with the south Korean authorities. We will soon take a next action … Before long, a tragic scene of the useless north-south joint liaison office completely collapsed would be seen … Rubbish must be thrown into dustbin.”

: Kwon Jong Gun, director-general of the Department of US Affairs in the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), warns South Koreans not to “poke their noses into” US-North Korea relations or the nuclear issue. Among other colorful images, he calls the South “long forsaken like a good-for-nothing cucumber stalk thrown into swill”, and “preemies [sic] … burping after drinking a still water.” More analytically: “We are not what we were two years ago.”

: Jang Kum Chol, director of the UFD of the WPK CC, warns that, in KCNA’s headline, “North-South Ties Have Reached Uncontrollable Phase.” Jang concludes: “From now, time will be, indeed, regretful and painful for the south Korean authorities.”

: Blue House warns that it will “thoroughly crack down” on cross-border leafleteering, saying this violates both domestic ROK law and inter-Korean agreements. The same day, MOU files criminal charges against two leaflet-sending groups.

: South Korea confirms that the North is no longer picking up the phone on both civilian and military hotlines. Test calls are normally scheduled for 9 am and 4 pm daily.

: KCNA reports that, following a Party review decreeing that “work towards the south should thoroughly turn into the one against enemy,” as a first step all North-South communication lines will be severed at noon that day. It itemizes these as “ … the north-south joint liaison office, the East and West Seas communication lines between the militaries of the north and the south, the inter-Korean trial communication line and the hotline between the office building of the Central Committee of the WPK and the Chongwadae [Blue House]”.

: DPRK media – domestic and external– launch blitzkrieg of attacks echoing and amplifying Kim Yo Jong’s. Dozens of such articles appear over the next fortnight. Typical headlines include “Unpardonable Hostile Act” and “No mercy for the filthy scum.”

: Unnamed “spokesman of the United Front Department of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea” (UFD, CC, WPK) warns, among other threats and insults, that “we are about to start the work that can hurt the south side soon.”

: Responding within hours, MOU does not criticize Kim Yo Jong’s diatribe but says it is working on plans to legislate a ban on cross-border leafleteering. Such activity, it adds, causes tensions, creates litter and endangers residents in border areas.

: In a sharply worded statement, her second aimed at Seoul this year, Kim Yo Jong attacks “human scum” who send leaflets by balloon into North Korea, warning that “the south Korean authorities will be forced to pay a dear price if they let this situation go on.”

: An optimistic MOU says that in hopes the North will respond, it will prepare for inter-Korean relations in the post-coronavirus age, citing the east coast rail project.

: MOU says it wants to revise the South-North Exchange and Cooperation Act to make it easier for North Korean firms to do business in the South.

: Citing coronavirus concerns and chilly relations, MOU says South Korea will mark next month’s 20th anniversary of the first North-South summit on its own, without North Korea. This is not new; there has been no joint celebration since 2009.

: MOU says South Korea will give $4.9 million over five years to a project by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). The goal is “improving North Korean people’s understanding of international principles on statistics and usability of data as part of efforts to enhance the country’s sustainable development capacity.”

: MOU says it wants to revise the South-North Exchange and Cooperation Law, enacted in 1990, to make cooperation easier. Ideas include allowing municipalities to have their own dealings with the North, and loosening reporting and permission rules for a range of inter-Korean contacts.

: ROK Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) announces a year-long comprehensive survey, the first, of the DMZ; presumably on the Southern side only, below the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). A 55-person panel will look for archaeological relics, flora, and fauna at 40 sites. No North Korean involvement is mentioned.

: Kim reappears. KCNA reports that he guided “the Fourth Enlarged Meeting of the Seventh Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK)” —presumably a day earlier, on May 23. Topics discussed included “new policies for further increasing … nuclear war deterrence.”

: With KJU unseen for three weeks since his re-emergence on May Day, MOU says: “The relevant authorities are keeping a close watch”—while noting that such absences are not unusual.

: Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul says the May 24 measures will remain in force.

: Approaching the tenth anniversary of the “May 24 measures”—a ban on most North-South trade imposed by Seoul in 2010, in reprisal for the sinking of the Cheonan that March—MOU says these have “virtually lost … effect” and pose no obstacle to inter-Korean exchanges. It reiterates this next day, claiming past administrations had eroded the sanctions through exemptions; but declines comment on whether they might be lifted entirely.

: Yonhap reports that MOU has launched a “Fake News Response” page on its website, the first ROK ministry to do so, a result of worries that rumor and speculation “could cause confusion and instability in society and financial markets.” Two early targets are YouTube videos, claiming that facemasks are abundant in North Korea though scarce in the South, and that a Southern factory is sending the North a million masks a day.

: MOU says it expects North Korea to face an overall grain shortage of 860,000 tons this year.

: MND denies and deplores media claims that protests by Pyongyang prompted cancellation of a biannual inter-service maritime live fire drill, due to be held this week off Uljin on the east coast. The ministry insists that adverse weather was the real reason.

: Yonhap reports that MOU’s latest annual who’s who in North Korea lists, among other changes, a new chief of the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), the DPRK’s military intelligence agency. Rim Kwang Il, an army general, replaced Jang Kil Song last December. MOU notes high turnover rates during the past year: almost 80% for the WPK Politburo, and 82% for the State Affairs Commission (SAC).

: ROK JCS says it now has “decisive” evidence (which it does not reveal) that May 3 cross-border firing by the DPRK was accidental.

: Blue House spokesman insists it is too early to rule out a fresh inter-Korean summit this year, even though “truly, it seems difficult at the moment.”

: In a “special address” on the third anniversary of his inauguration, President Moon suggests quarantine cooperation as a way to revive inter-Korean relations, as this would not breach international sanctions. He admits that “North Korea is not responding”—but blames this on “difficulties” due to COVID-19.

: Maj. Gen. Kim Do-gyun, MND’s point man on inter-Korean affairs, is promoted to three stars – and taken off the case. He becomes chief of the Capital Defense Command. The report does not state who will replace him on the North Korea beat at MND.

: South Korea’s Minister of Unification (MOU) visits the DMZ. Kim Yeon-chul’s trip to Panmunjom is to assess preparations for the planned resumption of tourism, suspended since last year’s outbreak of African swine fever.

: US-led United Nations Command (UNC) says it is conducting “a full investigation” into May 3 border shooting incident. It was reportedly unable to enter the Northern side of the DMZ. Pyongyang has still offered no explanation, much less apology.

: Yonhap says that the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy (KIEP), an ROK state think-tank, is proposing that South Korea sign a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with North Korea, “to accelerate reform … and to help it integrate into the international market.” (KIEP’s homepage lists a report with this date, but in fact published last December—so it is unclear what exactly is new here.)

: ROK Ministry of National Defense (MND) says Pyongyang has not yet offered any explanation for yesterday’s gunfire incident at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

: South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) report that at about 0741 Northern gunfire struck a guardpost at Cheorwon in the central part of the peninsula, leaving four bullet holes. Following procedure, the ROKA reacted with broadcast warnings, followed by two bursts of return fire (10 rounds each). Though a clear breach of 2018’s inter-Korean military agreement, Seoul reckons the North did not intend a provocation. The JCS noted that “it was quite foggy and the North Korean soldiers usually rotate shifts around that time,”

: Yonhap, South Korea’s quasi-official news agency, cites an unnamed Blue House official as denying that Kim Jong Un has undergone any kind of medical procedure.

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