North Korea returned some of its staff to an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong Monday, three days after they abruptly pulled all its staff from the office, citing an order from “higher-ups” on Friday. The North didn’t elaborate on reasons for the withdrawal and return, but reportedly said that their commitment to carrying out projects in line with the South-North Korean joint declarations remains unchanged. While Pyongyang is taking advantage of the inter-Korean relationship to have its own way, the Seoul government doesn’t seem to be taking any actions to amend the situation.
North Korea restored four or five officials on Monday, only half of the office’s personnel, after it withdrew all of them apparently to counter the U.S. Treasury’s decision to impose additional sanctions on the regime. The return of the North Korean staff, which came after President Trump ordered the withdrawal of additional sanctions, clearly reveals the regime’s intention to test the waters. There’s nothing new about North Korea taking it out on the South whenever its relationship with the United States sours, but it seems now the regime thinks of the inter-Korean relations as one of its consumables.
Pyongyang also used its propaganda outlets Monday to slam the South Korean government’s stance to maintain cross-border cooperation within the framework of sanctions as a “shameful statement lacking rudimentary-level of self-esteem.” The regime also criticized Seoul on Sunday for “being a puppet who follows a U.S. plot to pressure the North with sanctions,” while refraining from directly pointing a finger at Washington.
Such an attitude is aimed at pressuring Seoul to stop blaming economic sanctions but speed up preparations for the resumption of inter-Korean projects including the tour program to Mount Kumgang and the Kaesong Industrial Complex. However, sanctions have been imposed on the regime by the international community as a punishment for its violations. Therefore, what the North’s been urging the South to do is basically to break the rules and become an accomplice. Still, the Seoul government seems to be thinking of how to appease the North, not being able to say a word to the regime.
The government’s reaction to the latest incidents was nothing but passive. It expressed “regret” over the North’s pullout, and welcomed the return of staff. The inter-Korean liaison office is an official organization opened based on a signed agreement on its composition and operation, as a follow-up to the Panmunjom Declaration. The abrupt withdrawal constitutes a clear violation of the agreement, but the government didn’t even make a complaint. Endless patience and tolerance cannot be a cure-for-all. The government should think about what it would look like to the eyes of South Koreans.