The Kim siblings’ hostility towards Moon Jae-in: A (un)Communicated escalation

  • + Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister, seems to be the driving force behind the current hostile situation in the Korean peninsula.
  • + Kim Jong-un’s hostility has been sparked by the economic pressure the pandemic is inflicting, the US’s sanctions and the failed negotiations last year with Trump.
  • + Despite gaining media attention, the escalation created by the Kim siblings represents the collapse of the improvement achieved during 2018 and remains to be seen whether it will yield any concessions for North Korea.
Korea Summit Press

Why are the Kim siblings hostile towards Moon Jae-in?

Answer: Despite using a leafleting campaign as an excuse to be hostile, the real motivation seems to lie in the pressure they are facing with the failed negotiations from last year and the pressure added by the coronavirus pandemic.

On June 8th, North Korea announced that all communication with South Korea would be cut off, including the liaison line and military communications. As if the message wasn’t clear enough, this week Kim Yo-jong, who serves as his unofficial chief of staff, threatened South Korea saying that they would have the liaison office “collapse.” The threat was then fulfilled Tuesday, June 16th, when North Korea demolished the office. This decision sends a very definite message of hostility, as well as the demise of the effort towards improvement Moon Jae-in, put back in 2018 towards a more peaceful relationship with North Korea, especially since the office was paid for by South Korea and sat on North Korean territory.

Kim Jong-um claimed that the decisions to cut communications and the destruction of the office were in response to an insulting leaflet campaign by North Korean defectors in South Korea against their former regime. Kim Yo-jong called the deserters “human scum” (CBS News) and continued to insist on Moon Jae-in’s lack of efforts in upholding his commitments to engage and develop inter-Korean projects. The reason for Moon Jae-in’s lack of interest in engagement stems from the recently enforced US and UN embargoes limiting economic development with North Korea.

“We have reached a conclusion that there is no need to sit face to face with the South Korean authorities and there is no issue to discuss with them, as they have only aroused our dismay.” Korean Central News Agency (via The Guardian). More recently, Kim Yo-jong attacked Moon Jae-in after his speech on the 20th-anniversary mark of the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. She called him an “imprudent man” with “disgusting behaviour” and whose speech was “sickening”. (YNA)

What do the Kim siblings want?

Answer: They seem to be trying to gain attention and force the other side to negotiate as they are clearly under more pressure to provide due to the COVID 19 crisis.

The recent escalations appear to be the Kim siblings’ way of obtaining concessions by creating a crisis and hopefully forcing South Korea and the United States to ease the sanctions. This is because the pandemic seems to be taking an increased toll on the already challenged North Korean economy and this isn’t the first time North Korea has lashed out against South Korea in order to gain concessions.

Back in 2019, Kim Jong-un’s negotiations with Trump fell through as they weren’t able to reach an agreement considering both the economic sanctions and North Korea’s nuclear capabilities remained. The North Korean supreme leader’s frustrations intensified after President Moon Jae-in remained unwilling to do business with North Korea due to South Korea’s international obligation, making them unable to lobby Trump for sanction’s relief.

The animosity between the two Koreas started shortly after the failure in negotiations and has been increasing at a gradual level since. Back in November 2019, the Korean Central News Agency criticized Moon Jae-in as Kim Jong-um declined the South Korean president’s invitation to the South-Asian leaders’ summit; accusing South Korea of relying too much on the US. Moon Jae-in’s inability to approach North Korea, and the reason for the most recent rise in tensions, stems from the inability of Seoul to create an independent policy towards North Korea. This is as a result of South Korea’s reliance on the U.S., both for military protection and for politically complex reasons, such as the longstanding U.S.-South Korean alliance.

“How can we sit face to face and solve things with such a partner entrusting everything to the outsider without any independence and self-standing attitude?” KNCA, 2019

 The hostility once more adopted towards South Korea could be a way to relieve the domestic pressure Kim Jong-um might be under by shifting attention to other matters, such as the enemy state of South Korea. In the long run, this could be the Kim siblings’ method of obtaining sanction relief by creating a regional crisis with Moon Jae-in. Moreover, Kim Jong-un’s decision to allow his sister to take over the country’s policy towards their Southern neighbour could be a method through which to legitimize her power and establish her as his heir; especially given the recent speculations regarding his health. By allowing her to be the driving force on the escalations – especially on addressing how North Korea will act and being very opinionated on the matter – she would be displaying her ability to lead North Korea in the future and challenging internal speculation about her capacity to do so.

What does Moon Jae-in want?

Answer: Moon Jae-in’s administration has shown to be pro-engagement and has made significant attempts to negotiate with North Korea over the past year in order to establish a “peace regime”. 

Moon Jae-in’s pro-engagement and dialogue policy towards North Korea has been a radical change in South Korean foreign policy as both previous administrations (from 2008 to 2017) cut all economic and cultural ties to North Korea. During his campaign, Moon criticized the North Korean regime, but also said that South Korea needed to “embrace the North Korean people to achieve peaceful reunification one day” (NY Times).

Back in 2018, Moon Jae-in demonstrated this more receptive policy and was successful in it at first as the inter-Korean summit had three encounters and proved to be a solid advancement in the two Koreas relations. They’d agreed upon the establishment of the now-demolished inter-Korean liaison office, the demilitarization of the Joint Security Area, and further cooperation agreements on varying issues.  The strain Moon Jae-in faces in achieving peace between the two Koreas is likely derived from the role he chose as a mediator between North Korea and the U.S. as well as his decision to ultimately abide by the sanctions. By doing so, he puts himself in a state of limbo that leaves little room to negotiate with the U.S. regarding the embargoes. For instance, he tried and failed to negotiate with Trump in 2019, compromising his inter-Korean policy as he relied on the sanctions lifting to proceed with the joint projects and proceed with the building of the peace regime in the Korean Peninsula.

What is Moon Jae-in doing?

Answer: According to North Korea, Moon Jae-in has welcomed and allowed deserters to attack the North Korean regime. Moreover, it seems the problem is Moon Jae-in’s refusal in taking part in joint projects due to the US sanctions.  

As mentioned previously, the major tension between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in is the fact that Jae-in has “supported” the United States’ side by abiding by economic sanctions rather than lobbying the US for sanction relief. This showcases how South Korea is in a state of limbo between the United States and North Korea. Despite Moon Jae-in’s peaceful intentions in the Korean Peninsula, he has no power over the sanctions and still ultimately abides them as he won’t jeopardize his relationship with the United States.

In regard to the leafleting campaign, Moon Jae-in had already halted its propaganda activities and has been trying to enforce as much as possible this edict. Any further compliance to North Korean demands – especially the punishment Kim Yo-jong wants towards the activists and deserters – would be seen as an infringement on the right of freedom of speech in the South. Furthermore, Moon is trying to show restraint and maintain the dialogue with North Korea, saying that it should stay at the negotiating table rather than “return to the past period of confrontation by cutting the communication and raising tension.” (CNN). However, it seems Kim Yo-jong hit a nerve once she addressed Moon Jae-in’s speech about the 20th anniversary of the first inter-Korean summit. His office replied pointing out that they “won’t tolerate any more of North Korea’s indiscreet rhetoric and acts” (YNA).

Who is winning and what about you?  

Answer: Kim Jong-um is definitely gaining media attention, however, the coronavirus situation is aggravating the economic conditions in the country and he doesn’t seem to be creating the environment to have any relief from the sanctions

It is evident that the hostility is sparking increased diplomatic tensions and border skirmishes between the two Koreas and it definitely represents a major setback from the achievements from the past years. 

Moon is attempting as much as he can to maintain his diplomatic game with North Korea and the Kim siblings, and it seems there might be a way as they suspended their military plans in the border. However, should the situation calls for it, he will act accordingly as he has done in the first phase of his policy towards North Korea once he took office. It is still unclear what the actual long-term goal that Kim Jong-um and Kim Yo-jong want to achieve is, Should they keep pushing the escalation, the conflict may escalate to another show of forces and the intensification of North Korea’s nuclear program. That would raise security and tensions in Asia as well as threaten the United States once more, forcing Trump to engage – either to negotiate or increase its presence in Asia, the latest being the most likely.

Felipe Oliveira Santos

Research and Analysis Intern