Update at 17:20, 18:45, 18:55, 19:45 KST: this article has been updated to include North Korean state media confirmation that the office has been destroyed, and South Korean government response.
North Korean authorities on Tuesday demolished an inter-Korean liaison office in the border city of Kaesong, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) and North Korean state media confirmed.
The demolition took place around 14:50, and comes amid heightened inter-Korean tensions in the past week prompted in part by North Korean anger at the South’s failure to stop activists sending anti-regime leaflets into the North.
North Korean state media reported that the office had been destroyed in a “terrific explosion.”
“The relevant field of the DPRK put into practice the measure of completely destroying the north-south joint liaison office in the Kaesong Industrial Zone,” a statement, carried by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), said.
The move, it said, had come in response to widespread public anger over anti-regime leaflets sent by defectors in the South, and in accordance with the “mindset of the enraged people to surely force human scum and those, who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes.”
South Korea said its defense minister and the chief of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) had been briefed on the situation, and had moved to a “combat control office” to manage the situation.
Seoul also conveyed an emergency meeting of its Presidential National Security Council (NSC) later in the day, where officials reportedly expressed “strong regret” at the move.
“The North destroying the South-North joint liaison office is an act that goes against the expectations of those who wish for the development of South-North relations and the settlement of peace on the Korean Peninsula,” a statement distributed by the Blue House.
“The government makes it clear that the responsibility for everything that follows this is entirely on the North’s side,” the statement continued. “We will strongly respond if the North continues to take measures that exacerbate the situation.”
Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) warned that the ROK will “respond strongly” should the North carry out any military provocation, adding that it is closely monitoring the North’s military movements around the clock.
Suh Ho, vice unification minister and South Korean head of the liaison office, held a briefing Tuesday evening also voicing “strong regret” and complaint against the “senseless act” of detonating the building.
The North’s destruction of the office has “astounded not only our people but the whole world,” Suh said, warning that Pyongyang will have to take “due responsibility” for such action.
The news follows comments by top official Kim Yo Jong on Saturday warning that the inter-Korean liaison office at Kaesong would soon be “collapsed.”
No South Koreans were working at the office at the time of the demolition, South Korea confirmed, which was temporarily closed on January 31 amid fears around the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
One expert said that Tuesday’s move served as part of North Korean efforts to punish the South Korean government for what it saw as broken promises — and warned that further escalation may be likely in the future.
“The North Koreans have decided to teach the Moon administration a lesson — to show them it’s not the Americans that can cause them a headache,” Andrei Lankov, a director at the Korea Risk Group, which owns and operates NK News, said.
“The Moon administration should have understood that they are not dealing with fellow nationalist idealists, but the smartest brand of hyper realists in operation,” he added.
“North Korea needs money,” Lankov continued. “They expected economic and financial aid — exactly what the South Koreans have avoided giving to them.”