A South Korean government official was killed on September 22 by the North Korean military after floating into enemy territory, marking the latest provocation in a year that has strained relations on the Korean Peninsula. After disappearing the day before, the official was shot dead and burned because he refused to answer questions and attempted to flee from the North.
The official was on board a government inspection ship as a member of the fisheries department. The South Korean government claims that the official was defecting to North Korea due to his swim against unfavorable currents with a life jacket and floatation device; it was clear that he did not get pushed off the ship or tried to take his life.
Regardless of his intentions, North Korea is known to have a “shoot-to-kill” policy, recently justified to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak in the country. Northern officials were preparing for a huge military parade that occured on October 10 to celebrate the anniversary of the foundation of the Workers’ Party. The South quickly condemned North Korea’s plans, stating that Pyongyang can’t “justify the shooting and burning the corpse of our unarmed citizen who showed no sign of resistance.”
The incident brought an unprecedented apology from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who described the incident as “unexpected and disgraceful.” The apology comes at a time when all communications between the two countries have ceased and only a few months after North Korea destroyed the inter-Korean liaison office. In June 2020, the North blew up the office, which opened in 2018 to help Seoul and Pyongyang maintain communication and promote dialogue on the peninsula. The site had been empty since January due to COVID-19 precautions, but when communication ended in early June, the site was destroyed.
Tensions had been escalating for weeks before the North cut off all inter-Korean communication lines, including a hotline between the two leaders. There were two phone calls a day made between the two countries, until the morning call went unanswered for the first time in 21 months. The North claims the disruption to peace comes from the South’s inability to prevent defectors from flying anti-regime propaganda over the border.
Despite many decades without full scale military conflict, the two countries are still technically at war since no agreement was reached at the end of the Korean War. There was hope for progress after President Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-un at the border in June 2019. However, in October 2019, nuclear talks in Sweden were broken off after North Korean negotiators argued that the United States was being too inflexible. Now, it is suggested that the North is using this disruption in peace as a crisis that could be leveraged in later talks.
There is no sure path forward for North and South Korea; however, some action can be predicted on behalf of the North. History indicates that North Korea might make some kind of provocation prior to or just after the U.S. presidential election in November. This potential “October surprise” could come in the form of long-range missile tests or aggressive posturing towards Seoul. Additionally, nuclear talks should not be expected to resume until after the presidential election, at which point North Korea will know what kind of administration they will deal with for the next four years.
This crisis of deteriorating relations is a noteworthy international situation that should be closely watched and expect updates and more skirmishes.