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N Korea at crossroads

Kim Jong Un's sister fans flames of inter-Korean tensions

South Korea on edge over threat of retaliation over anti-Pyongyang flyers

Kim Jong Un with his sister, Kim Yo Jong: Kim Yo Jong has become an increasingly visible in the North Korean regime, fueling widespread speculation that she is being groomed as her brother's successor.   © AP

SEOUL -- Tensions are on the rise between the two Koreas as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister and possible successor, Kim Yo Jong, hints at potential military retaliation against anti-North flyers sent over the de facto border by balloon.

With blue-crab season at its peak in the Yellow Sea, there is concern that North Korea will send military vessels across its de facto maritime border with South Korea under the guise of protecting its fishing boats. The South Korean military detected North Korean forces conducting target practice near the Demilitarized Zone on Sunday, the South's Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported.

Kim Yo Jong is seen as the main driver behind these provocations. She said in a Saturday statement that she had ordered the military to take its "next action" on South Korea by "exercising my power authorized by the Chairman, the Party and the State."

She also threatened to demolish the liaison office for the two Koreas in the border town of Kaesong.

"I feel it is high time to surely break with the South Korean authorities," Kim Yo Jong said.

North Korea has long railed against the leaflets, which are attached to giant balloons and sent across the de facto border by North Korean defectors to the South. Back in 2014, it fired on the balloons. Pyongyang is also unhappy over South Korean President Moon Jae-in's failure to advance joint North-South economic projects amid pressure from the U.S.

The North Korean regime is likely looking to divert some of the bubbling dissatisfaction at home, caused by the coronavirus and economic sanctions, as well as to pressure the South into easing economic sanctions. North Korea has a habit of stoking tensions to sweeten subsequent offers of dialogue.

Meanwhile, the South is eager to keep the peace. Moon on Monday urged Pyongyang to show restraint, calling on the North to respect the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration he signed with Kim Jong Un for the peace and prosperity of the two countries.

"We will search for projects that South and North Korea can decide on and carry out ourselves," he said, signaling an interest in continued dialogue.

Monday marked the 20th anniversary of the South-North Joint Declaration, signed by then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. Moon had likely hoped to discuss recent advancements in bilateral relations but said Monday that he "faced the 20th anniversary with a heavy heart."

To keep tensions from escalating further, the South Korean government announced that it will press charges against groups of North Korean defectors planning to release more balloons June 25 -- a move critics say is based on an unreasonable interpretation of South Korean law. Calls within the ruling party are growing for banning the dissemination of these flyers altogether.

With Kim Yo Jong hinting at possible military retaliation over the flyers, the South's National Security Council also met Sunday to discuss the situation.

"Our invincible revolutionary armed forces will take a resolute action," the North's Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a Monday piece.

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