September 29, 2020 | Insight

Don’t Trust Kim Jong Un’s Unexpected Apology Over Murder of South Korean Official

September 29, 2020 | Insight

Don’t Trust Kim Jong Un’s Unexpected Apology Over Murder of South Korean Official

Kim Jong Un issued a rare apology to the South Korean government on September 25th after North Korean soldiers killed and then burned the corpse of a South Korean government official, which sparked outrage in Seoul. While Kim’s sudden apology has seemingly defused the Seoul leadership’s initial anger, the administration of ROK President Moon Jae-in should not be so quick to formally accept Kim’s apology, as it is most likely just part of his regime’s ongoing political warfare strategy, which will likely include a charm offensive and demands for concessions. In reality, Kim’s message to Seoul is a “non-apology apology” and, as Professor Sung-Yoon Lee describes, a “great leader mind-trick” that is actually a rebuke of Seoul.

On Thursday, September 24th, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) confirmed that North Korean soldiers shot and killed a Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries official on September 22nd after he left his vessel and drifted into North Korean waters while on duty. MND could not specify why the official was in the water. It also reported that the North Koreans doused the corpse with oil and burned it.

Moon initially stated that North Korea’s “shocking” act is not tolerable for any reason and urged Pyongyang to take “responsible” measures against the perpetrators. A day later, Kim sent an apology message through Pyongyang’s United Front Department, a North Korean agency tasked with managing inter-Korean relations and overtly establishing pro-North Korea groups in the ROK.

Some experts from Seoul’s Korean Institute for National Unification suggest that Kim’s apology signifies Pyongyang’s intent to prevent the deterioration of inter-Korean relations. This assessment, however, overlooks the Kim regime’s track record of conducting political warfare against the South, which seeks to influence Seoul’s decision-making through a balance of coercion and deception. As retired Lieutenant General In-Bum Chun has written, “the DPRK is a leading practitioner of political warfare, and this tool is a central, indeed definitive, feature of the North Korean regime’s power abroad and at home.”

Just before last week’s murder, the Kim regime used threats and provocations to force Seoul to block human rights activists and North Korean escapees from sending information leaflets across the border. Pyongyang’s leadership went about this by blowing up the North Korean side of a joint liaison office in the North Korean border town of Kaesong and cutting all lines of communication. Also, Kim threatened to abrogate an inter-Korean comprehensive military agreement known formally as the Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain.

Fully aware that the South Korean government prioritizes inter-Korean engagement, Kim played on the ROK leadership’s deep-seated fears that Seoul could lose a rare chance for reconciliation and dialogue unless it conceded to Northern demands. In this case, Pyongyang succeeded in influencing the Moon administration to suppress the leaflets and, in effect, violate the civil liberties of North Korean defectors.

Beyond coercion, North Korean political warfare also entails its blackmail diplomacy of engaging South Korea or the United States in dialogue to extort concessions while Pyongyang gives up nothing in exchange. For instance, Kim turned to diplomatic outreach in 2018 to defuse unprecedented tension with the United States and weaken the impact of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. This outreach opened the way for three leader-level meetings that Pyongyang exploited to win concessions, such as the suspension of U.S.-South Korea military exercises, even while the North continued to develop its nuclear weapons and test short- and medium-range ballistic missile and rocket systems.

The killing of the South Korean fisheries official could not have come at a better time for North Korean efforts to reengage South Korea through a charm offensive. One of the well-known North Korean political warfare tactics is to cause tension or conduct provocations and then follow up with offers to defuse a situation it created. Throughout this year, North Korea has experienced multiple crises affecting its economy and government. First, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the regime to impose draconian population- and resource-control measures, such as cutting off all cross-border trade activity, both licit and illicit, to prevent infections. Others measures include restricting internal movement and attempting to halt the use of foreign currency.

While U.S. and UN sanctions have already been damaging North Korea’s economy, Pyongyang’s decision to cut off cross-border trade makes the impact even worse. Such policies have reduced the supply of goods that were sold in North Korea’s internal markets, which have been essential for its economic livelihood. Additionally, three typhoons in the last month have devastated regions essential to North Korean agricultural production.

In addition, it appears that Kim might be preparing to blame South Korea for a COVID-19 outbreak. After months of denying the existance of any COVID-19 cases inside North Korea, the Kim regime reported its first potential case after a defector from South Korea allegedly “re-defected” back to the North. It is possible this ‘re-defector’ was a covert North Korean operative. The regime claims that he tested positive for the coronavirus, which led to the lockdown of the city of Kaesong.

With his apology, Kim may have set the conditions for a demand for COVID-19 and humanitarian aid built around Pyongyang’s narrative that makes the South responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak in the North. This is just one example of how Kim may continue conducting political warfare against the South.

Furthermore, Kim’s sudden turn towards diplomatic outreach to South Korea also makes sense now because the Moon administration has increased efforts to bolster North-South engagement over the last year.

For example, just after the murder was committed but before it became public knowledge, Moon boldly called for an end-of-war declaration and highlighted his hope for a breakthrough in inter-Korean engagement during his speech for the 75th UN General Assembly. Additionally, Kang Kyung-wha, South Korea’s foreign minister, suggested inter-Korean engagement should continue regardless of the fisheries official’s death. Kim therefore will likely use this apology to rekindle bilateral diplomacy, with the sole intent of extorting aid and other concessions to alleviate his immediate crises.

With this in mind, the Moon administration should not be quick to accept any further olive branches or restart any high-level dialogue. Seoul’s demand for further investigation in response to Kim’s apology and vows of increased intelligence surveillance are positive though somewhat tepid actions. Seoul should move forward with engagement only if Pyongyang provides its own concessions on its nuclear program to demonstrate the regime has made the strategic choice to denuclearize. If the Moon administration does want to provide humanitarian aid, it must demand full transparency, to include inspections to ensure the aid reaches those in need and is not siphoned off for the North Korean military or the regime.

If the North refuses to comply on either the nuclear or humanitarian fronts, Seoul should refuse and instead confront the North for not just this single act of brutality, but also for all its security and human rights violations.

It is time for the Moon administration to treat the Kim family regime for what it truly is and not as what Seoul wishes it would be.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army and a retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Mathew Ha is a research analyst. Both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from David, Mathew, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David and Mathew on Twitter @davidmaxwell161 and @matjunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power North Korea