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North Korean leader suspends planned military action against South

Kim Jong Un appeared to be slowing down a campaign of pressure against the South.

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A South Korean army soldier passes by a TV showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

A South Korean army soldier passes by a TV showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

A South Korean army soldier passes by a TV showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has suspended a planned military retaliation against South Korea.

The announcement by officials marked an apparent slowing of the pressure campaign Pyongyang has waged against its rival amid stalled nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration.

Last week, the North had declared relations with the South as fully ruptured, and destroyed an inter-Korean liaison office in its territory.

Pyongyang also threatened unspecified military action to censure Seoul for a lack of progress in bilateral cooperation, as well as for activists floating anti-North Korean leaflets across the border.

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An anti-war activist holds a card (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

An anti-war activist holds a card (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

AP/PA Images

An anti-war activist holds a card (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

Analysts say the North, after weeks deliberately raising tensions, may be pulling away just enough to make room for South Korean concessions.

If Mr Kim does eventually opt for military action, he may resume artillery drills and other exercises in front line areas or have vessels deliberately cross the disputed western maritime border between the Koreas, which has been the scene of bloody skirmishes in past years.

However, any action is likely to be measured to prevent full-scale retaliation from South Korean and US forces.

Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said Mr Kim presided by video conference over a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Military Commission, which decided to postpone plans for military action against the South brought up by the North’s military leaders.

KCNA did not specify why the decision was made. It said other discussions included bolstering the country’s “war deterrent”.

Yoh Sang-key, a spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, said Seoul was “closely reviewing” the North’s report but did not further elaborate.

Mr Yoh also said it was the first report in state media of Mr Kim holding a video conferencing meeting, but he did not provide a specific answer when asked whether that would have something to do with the coronavirus.

The North said there has not been a single Covid-19 case on its territory, but that claim has been questioned by outside experts.

Kim Dong-yub, an analyst from Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said it is likely that the North is waiting for further action from the South to salvage ties from what it sees as a position of strength, rather than softening its stance on its rival.

“What’s clear is that the North said (the military action) was postponed, not cancelled,” said the former South Korean military official, who participated in inter-Korean military negotiations.

Other experts say the North would be seeking something major from the South, possibly a commitment to resume operations at a shuttered joint factory park in Kaesong, where the liaison office was located, or restart South Korean tours to the North’s Diamond Mountain resort.

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A directional sign showing the distance to North Korea’s Kaesong city and South Korea’s capital Seoul is seen near the wire fences decorated with ribbons written with messages wishing for the reunification of the two Koreas at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, South Korea (Lee Jin-man/AP)

A directional sign showing the distance to North Korea’s Kaesong city and South Korea’s capital Seoul is seen near the wire fences decorated with ribbons written with messages wishing for the reunification of the two Koreas at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, South Korea (Lee Jin-man/AP)

AP/PA Images

A directional sign showing the distance to North Korea’s Kaesong city and South Korea’s capital Seoul is seen near the wire fences decorated with ribbons written with messages wishing for the reunification of the two Koreas at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, South Korea (Lee Jin-man/AP)

Those steps are prohibited by the international sanctions against the North over its nuclear weapons programme.

“Now isn’t the time for anyone in Seoul or Washington to be self-congratulatory about deterring North Korea,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

“There may be a pause in provocations or Pyongyang might temporarily deescalate in search of external concessions.

“But North Korea will almost certainly continue to bolster its so-called ‘deterrent’. As long as the Kim regime refuses to denuclearise, it is likely to use Seoul as a scapegoat for its military modernisation and domestic politics of economic struggle after failing to win sanctions relief.”

The public face of the North’s recent heavy criticism of the South has been Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of leader Kim Jong Un, who has been confirmed as his top official on inter-Korean affairs.

Issuing harsh statements through state media, she said the North’s demolition of the liaison office would be just the first in a series of retaliatory action against the “enemy” South, and that she would leave it to the North’s military to come up with the next steps.

PA