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What to Make of Kim Yo Jong’s Verbal Attack of South Korea’s Defense Minister

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What to Make of Kim Yo Jong’s Verbal Attack of South Korea’s Defense Minister

Three days after Defense Minister Suh Wook underscored the South’s preemptive strike capabilities, Pyongyang warned that Seoul was facing a serious threat. 

What to Make of Kim Yo Jong’s Verbal Attack of South Korea’s Defense Minister

In this Feb. 10, 2018 file photo, Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, and North Korea’s nominal head of state Kim Yong Nam, wait for the start of the preliminary round of the women’s hockey game between Switzerland and the combined Koreas at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea.

Credit: AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File

Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and a leading voice on inter-Korean relations, said on Sunday that “South Korea may face a serious threat,” according to the North’s state media.

“The senseless and scum-like guy dare mentioned the ‘preemptive strike’ at a nuclear weapons state, in his senseless bluster which will never be beneficial to South Korea, either,” Kim said in a reported statement.

The “guy” that Kim referred to in the statement is South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook, who recently underscored the South’s capability to take a preemptive strike against the North if there is any indication of the North launching missiles toward South Korea. Kim also called Suh “a confrontation maniac engrossed in the mindset of confrontation with his fellow countrymen in the North.”

“His reckless and intemperate rhetoric about the ‘preemptive strike’ has further worsened the inter-Korean relations and the military tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” Kim said. Giving a serious warning toward the South, Kim used the “upon authorization” phrase to imply that her remarks came from her brother, Kim Jong Un.

Since taking office in 2017, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has focused his efforts on overtures to North Korea centered on dialogue. Against that backdrop, South Korean officials could not make strong remarks in response to North Korean moves, as Moon’s office even refrained from defining the North’s missile tests as “provocations.” However, new South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol has explicitly taken a hawkish stance on North Korea and showed more conservative responses to the North’s missile tests. Thus Seoul’s Defense Ministry is now taking bolder moves to deter North Korea’s threats.

Pyongyang may conduct a nuclear test in the lead up to the several important events that are scheduled this month, including the 110th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North and the late grandfather of Kim Jong Un.

Amid the tensions on the Korean Peninsula, escalated by North Korea’s test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Seoul and Washington have been closely monitoring the movements and activities of Pyongyang. Considering Kim Jong Un’s recent “Top Gun”-style performance on the country’s ICBM test site and Kim Yo Jong’s blunt remarks toward Seoul, aimed at emphasizing her country’s status as a “nuclear weapons state,” no one should be surprised by a nuclear test or other larger missile tests from North Korea.

Alongside with Kim’s statement, Park Jong Chon, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, also issued a statement on Sunday, calling Suh’s remarks a demonstration of the anti-North Korea “confrontational frenzy” of the South Korean military.

“Now the Korean Peninsula is technically at war. Any slight misjudgment and ill statement rattling the other party under the present situation where acute military tensions persists may become a spark triggering off a dangerous conflict and a full-blown war. This is a fact known by all,” Park said in his statement.

Park also added that the North’s army will “mercilessly direct all its military force into destroying major targets in Seoul and the South Korean military” if Seoul engages in military actions such as a preemptive strike.

Kim and Park’s statements were published three days after Suh publicly mentioned that the South’s military has the capability to accurately strike any targets in North Korea. Suh was speaking at a ceremony for the reinforcement of the Army Missile Strategic Command on April 1.

North Korea reported on March 25 that it successfully tested its new Hwasong-17 ICBM system on March 24. A few days later, however, South Korea and the United States concluded that what the North tested on March 24 was its Hwasong-15, not the newer Hwasong-17, pointing to some suspicious footage captured in the heavily edited video reported by the state media.

On March 16, an unknown ballistic missile launched by North Korea exploded in mid-air. Seoul and Washington believe the missile that blew up immediately after liftoff on March 16 could have actually been North Korea’s new Hwasong-17. In response, Pyongyang had to launch a version of its ICBM system – the Hwasong-15, successfully tested back in 2017 – to eliminate any questions among Pyongyang citizens about the state of the country’s missile capabilities and Kim’s regime. A South Korean lawmaker who attended the closed meeting with the Defense Ministry said that “the debris of the missile fell like rain” over Pyongyang after the failed test.

Even though Seoul and Washington called the North’s ICBM test on March 24 “deceptive,” Pyongyang has not responded to that claim.

Citing the North’s activities to restore its Punggye-ri nuclear site, experts believe that North Korea is trying to find a clear motivation and pretext to take bolder moves, such as testing its nuclear capabilities. It has already officially crossed the red line recently by conducting an ICBM test. Given the important upcoming events, which North Korea will want to celebrate through demonstrations of military prowess, Pyongyang could try to entice the South to make hostile moves first so that its future missile tests could be seen as countermeasures.

However, Kim and Park’s latest statements also represent Pyongyang’s fear of upcoming South Korea-U.S. joint military drills, which are scheduled later this month. When the nuclear talks and inter-Korean dialogue were ongoing in 2018 and 2019, Seoul and Washington agreed to scale back their joint military drills so as to foster a more friendly environment for the North to take substantive steps for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, the nuclear talks have been stalled after Kim and then-U.S. President Donald Trump failed to reach an agreement during the Hanoi summit meeting in 2019. Instead, North Korea appears to be fully committed to developing more advanced nuclear and missile programs, eliminating the rationale for Seoul and Washington’s scale-backed joint military drills.

The joint military drills are expected to be conducted on a larger scale from April 18 to 28, according to local media reports. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic will also no longer affect the military drills. Seoul and Washington will likely conduct the drills as planned and conduct some larger-scale exercises, which had been off the table in the past four years. Considering North Korea’s recent missile threats and its flurry of missile tests since January, it is inevitable for Seoul and Washington to rejuvenate their joint military drills.

Based on the schedules of the North’s important events and joint military drills between Seoul and Washington in April, the focus of the latest statements from Kim Yo Jong and Park Jong Chon is likely on the South Korea-U.S. joint military drills. Pyongyang is showing its clear stance that it will immediately take more provocative missile tests as tit-for-tat measures if Seoul and Washington conduct the drills on a larger scale.