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North Korea’s leader overrules military plan to deploy troops at border

By Choe Sang-Hun

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has overruled his military’s plans to resume exercises and deploy more troops near the heavily armed bor- der with South Korea, using his authority to de-escalate rising tensions on the Ko- rean Peninsula, the North’s official news agency reported Wednesday.

Switching back and forth between raising and easing tensions has long been part of the North’s way of gaining diplo- matic leverage against its external foes.

The decision came after a series of actions by North Korea this month that imperiled a fragile détente on the penin- sula, like cutting off communications lines with the South and blowing up a joint inter-Korean liaison office. The North’s military had also drawn up “action plans” likely to raise tensions along the border and had sought Kim’s approval of them.

Kim’s decision will most likely put at least a temporary brake on what ap- peared to be a rapid escalation of tensions in the peninsula in recent weeks. By stay- ing the hand of hard-liners in Pyongyang, the North’s leader appeared to have left room for diplomatic negotiations.

Kim convened the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Military Commission, the highest decision-making body on military affairs, on Tuesday and “took stock of the prevailing situation and suspended the military action plans against the South,” the North’s Korean Central News Agency said.

The news agency did not offer de- tails on Kim’s decision but added that the meeting, which took place through video conferencing, studied “some documents carrying the state measures for further bolstering the war deterrent of the country,” an apparent reference to the North’s earlier threat to boost its nuclear weapons capabilities.

North Korea has been expressing in- creasingly growing frustration with South Korea and the United States, especially since the second summit between Kim and President Donald Trump collapsed in Vietnam in February last year.

This month, it seized upon anti-Kim leaflets sent by activists in South Korea, mostly North Korean defectors, to start reversing the détente created when Kim met with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in 2018.

Last week the North’s Korean Peo- ple’s Army said it had prepared plans that would undermine the agreement be- tween Kim and Moon. Its plans includ- ed rebuilding some military guard posts within the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas that were demolished un- der the Kim-Moon agreement and resum- ing “all kinds of regular military exercises in the areas close to the boundary.”

On Monday, the North said it had prepared 12 million anti-South Korean leaflets and 3,000 balloons to carry them across the border, along with cigarette butts and other trash.

Most of the threats were made not in Kim’s name but orchestrated by his only sister, Kim Yo Jong, whose influence in her brother’s government has expand- ed in recent years. Analysts have said that by placing his sister up front in North Korea’s growing confrontation with Seoul and Washington and by keeping himself out of the fray, Kim has kept diplomatic flexibility to de-escalate.

The North’s sudden turn toward ani- mosity with the South — and, by exten- sion, the United States — reflected a de- sire to unify the country in the face of an economy further hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic and of a deepening need to push for concessions on international sanctions, the analysts said.

South Korea also moved quickly this month to placate the North, vowing to use the police to stop any attempt by the activists to send propaganda balloons to the North. The South said that the leaf- lets do little other than provoke the North and create trash in the South because many of the balloons never make it across the border. Seoul is also pushing to revise the domestic laws to ban the sending of such leaflets.

At the same time, South Korea expressed strong displeasure with the crude insults the North has hurled against its leader, Moon, and threatened retaliation if the North Korean military raised ten- sions. Kim Yo Jong at one point called Moon “insane” and said his speeches calling for peace on the peninsula “sick- ening.”

The harsh rhetoric was a switch from the warm relations between Kim Jong Un and Moon that peaked in Sep- tember 2018, when Kim let Moon speak before a huge North Korean audience fill- ing a stadium in Pyongyang and the two leaders climbed Mount Paektu, raising hands together at the top of the volcanic mountain on the border with China that Koreans consider the sacred birthplace of their nation.

Moon, a champion of political reconciliation between the two Koreas, helped arrange Kim’s historic summit meetings with Trump, which elevated Kim’s global status. But North Korea has repeatedly criticized both Seoul and Washington after Trump and Kim’s diplo- macy failed to ease U.S.-led sanctions. Kim himself has so far largely stopped short of attacking Trump and Moon in person.

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