Three months after the demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office, North Korea’s killing of a South Korean civil servant had the potential to sow more tension into the already troubled relationship. In the aftermath of the incident, the South Korean military denounced the killing as a brutal act and asked the North to apologize. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in regarded the killing as shocking and said it could not be tolerated.
In a rare move, North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un issued a swift apology. In a letter, Kim said he felt “very sorry” for the incident, which happened in North Korean waters, and would instruct the military to take necessary measures so that such a “regrettable” case would not recur. Kim added that such measures would prevent inter-Korean “trust and relations of respect” from falling apart.
Kim’s quick apology came as a surprise. North Korea has rarely expressed regret for similar incidents in the past and the country has not apologized for killing a South Korean tourist in 2008, nor its attacks on the South in 2010. What makes the apology more unusual is its timing. Inter-Korean relations have gone downhill since Pyongyang blew up the liaison office in June, cut off all communication lines and called the South an “enemy.” If Kim really wanted to maintain trust with the South per his apology, he should not have demolished the office or rebuffed Moon’s olive branch after the failed Hanoi summit with United States President Donald Trump. To understand the logic behind Kim’s unusual apology, it is important to look into North Korea’s bargaining tactics and differentiate the killing of the South Korean official from other past provocations.
North Korea has long mastered the art of coercive bargaining, which is to increase its negotiation leverage by consciously raising tension in exchange for concessions. Pyongyang’s logic is simple: If Moon wants to continue his Korean Peninsula detente and keeps the North invested in engagement, Moon should not let the U.S. interfere with his outreach to the North. North Korea’s goal is to make the South stop complying with international sanctions and pursue inter-Korean economic engagement as promised by Moon in the 2018 Pyongyang Joint Declaration. However, such coercive tactics require much risk-taking and need a system of top-level approval for the North to maintain a coordinated and coherent foreign policy. The North can also not be certain about how the South will respond. An overly aggressive move runs the risk of empowering anti-detente South Korean conservatives and undermining Moon’s outreach altogether, while an overly soft approach might not be enough to induce South Korean concessions. As a result, North Korea has prioritized taking actions that are reversible but can send a strong message to the South to minimize the risks. A symbolic and reversible move will prompt Seoul to concede in a timely fashion and leave open the door for post-concession engagement.
North Korea demonstrated this logic well with the demolition of the liaison office. The decision to destroy the office came from the sister of North Korea’s leader, Kim Yo Jong, in June, and followed other high-profile threats to cut inter-Korean communication lines. The demolition was symbolic enough for Seoul to understand Pyongyang’s frustration with Moon’s inability to foster economic engagement. But importantly, it was reversible. The office had been in a de facto paralyzed state since Pyongyang withdrew its staff following the Hanoi summit. North Korea’s provocation prompted Moon to reshuffle his national security team, which experts argued was more pro-engagement than its predecessor. Indeed, the new Unification Minister Lee In-young has been suggesting “new and creative” ways to bypass international sanctions by means of bartering trade with Pyongyang.
The killing of the South Korean official is different. The execution order did not come from Kim and thus was not a part of Pyongyang’s coercive bargaining strategy. The killing was not reversible. North and South Korea could find alternative channels of communications after the demolition of the liaison office, but a man cannot be brought back to life. Moreover, the impact of the killing left a worse impression on South Korea’s perception of the North compared to the demolition. Such a killing exposes North Korea’s grim human rights records and allows Seoul to blame the North for its violations of the September 19 military agreement. In terms of the symbolic aspect, North Korea had to dispute the South’s account that it set the man’s body on fire. Pyongyang claimed the man disappeared after its troops opened fire and it set alight the material he was floating on, in a bid to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. North Korea’s account, pending an investigation, could help alleviate the negative symbols of this episode for now. Kim thus had to issue an unusual apology to defuse the tension immediately. Despite the killing, South Korea’s foreign minister has reaffirmed the Moon administration’s commitment to engagement.
The differences between the two incidents expose the true intention behind Kim’s apology. North Korea has an outstanding record in manufacturing crises and as such, its government rarely goes off script. Pyongyang thus does not want an impulsive killing to leave a negative impact on Kim’s plan to selectively engage Moon in a bid to bypass international sanctions. Two days after Kim’s apology, North Korea warned the South not to disturb the Northern Limit Line, the inter-Korean maritime border, while searching for the slain South Korean. Pyongyang has remarkably praised the patrol boat crew that killed the South Korean man and did not respond to Seoul’s offer for a joint investigation. In this light, Kim’s swift apology should be seen as an effort to maintain the status quo and to correct an uncoordinated move, rather than a signal of his sincerity to make amends with Moon after the killing and the June provocations. For now, Kim’s goal is to keep inter-Korean ties stable while awaiting the outcome of the U.S. presidential election next month.
Khang Vu is a doctoral student in the Political Science Department at Boston College.