North Korea blew up an office set up to foster better ties with South Korea in its border town of Kaesong on Tuesday after it threatened to take action if North Korean defectors went ahead with a campaign to send propaganda leaflets into the North.
North Korea's KCNA state news said the liaison office, which had been closed since January over fears of the novel coronavirus, was ‘tragically ruined with a terrific explosion’.
South Korea also said the office had been blown up. Its media reported that an explosion was heard and smoke could be seen rising over Kaesong.
The office, when it was operating, served as an embassy for both of the old rivals and its destruction represents a major set-back for efforts by South Korea's President Moon Jae-in to coax the North into cooperation.
Tension has been rising over recent days with North Korea threatening to cut ties with South Korea and retaliate over the propaganda leaflets, which carry messages critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including on human rights.
KCNA said the office was blown up to force ‘human scum and those, who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes’. North Korea refers to defectors as ‘human scum’.
A South Korean military source told Reuters that there had been signs North Korea was going ahead with the demolition earlier in the day, and South Korean military officials watched live surveillance imagery as the building was blown up.
South Korea's won weakened by about 0.7% against the dollar in offshore non-deliverable forward trade after the reports, which came soon after the onshore spot trade finished.
On Saturday, North Korean state media reported that Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the North Korean leader, who serves as a senior official of the ruling Workers' Party, had ordered the department in charge of inter-Korean affairs to ‘decisively carry out the next action’.
‘Before long, a tragic scene of the useless north-south joint liaison office completely collapsed would be seen,’ she was reported as saying.
The first diplomatic mission of its kind, the inter-Korean liaison office was established in 2018 as part of a series of projects aimed at reducing tensions between the two Koreas.
The building had been originally used as offices for managing operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint venture between the two Koreas that was suspended in 2016 amid disagreement over the North’s nuclear and missile programmes.
South Korea spent at least 9.78 billion won (US$8.6 million) in 2018 to renovate the building, which stood as a gleaming four-storey blue glass structure amid the otherwise drab industrial city.
When it was operating, dozens of officials from both sides would work at the office, with South Koreans travelling each week into the North and staying at residential facilities in the building.
Earlier on Tuesday, North Korean state media quoted the military as saying it has been studying an ‘action plan’ to re-enter zones that had been demilitarized under a 2018 inter-Korean pact and ‘turn the front line into a fortress’.
‘Our army will rapidly and thoroughly implement any decisions and orders of the party and government,’ the Korean People's Army said in a statement carried by KCNA.
South Korea's defence ministry called for North Korea to abide by the 2018 agreement, under which both sides' militaries vowed to cease ‘all hostile acts’ and they dismantled a number of structures along the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone between the two countries.
‘We're taking the situation seriously,’ ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo told a briefing. ‘Our military is maintaining readiness posture to be able to respond to any situation.’
Several defector-led groups have regularly sent back flyers, together with food, $1 bills, mini radios and USB sticks containing South Korean dramas and news into North Korea, usually by balloon over the border or in bottles by river.
South Korea, which has been keen to improve ties with the North, called on the defectors to stop and plans legal action against two of defector groups, saying their actions fuel cross-border tensions, pose risks to residents living near the border and cause environmental damage.
But the groups have said they intend to push ahead with their planned campaign this week.
South Korea's President Moon urged North Korea on Monday to keep peace agreements reached by the two leaders and return to dialogue.
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