SEOUL -- North Korea demolished the two Koreas' joint liaison office in the border city of Kaesong on Tuesday, in a further blow to South Korea President Moon Jae-in's drive for reconciliation between the two countries that are still technically at war.
The escalation comes amid stalled denuclearization negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington, and just a day after South Korean President Moon Jae-in asked the North to come to the table for talks. Moon also urged cooperation on inter-Korean projects that have been suspended for months.
North Korea has hinted in recent days at taking military action against the South, in retaliation for the South allowing activists to send leaflets and other propaganda material into the North.
North Korea's official KCNA news agency said: "At 14:50, the liaison office was tragically ruined with a terrific explosion." The move corresponded "to the mindset of the enraged people to surely force human scum and those, who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes," it wrote in reference to defectors to the South.
South Korea's Ministry of Unification confirmed that the North destroyed the office at 2:49 p.m. Residents on the southern side of the border said they could see flames, the South's Yonhap News Agency reported.
"It was an expected event," Unification Minster Kim Yeon-chul told lawmakers at the National Assembly after the incident, alluding to a recent threat from Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
South Korea had no staff at the facility, after withdrawing them earlier this year due to the coronavirus crisis.
The four-story building was located in a factory park that was jointly run by both countries until the South closed it down in 2016 during tensions over the North's nuclear arms program. The office was the first channel for full-time personal contact between the two countries, which have technically been at war for decades because the Korean War that ended in 1953 was halted by an armistice, rather than a peace treaty.
The office's demolition is a blow for Moon's flagship policy of reconciliation with the North. It was established in September 2018 during a period of unprecedented warm relations between the countries that saw Moon meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un three times that year.
The move comes about a week after Pyongyang severed a hotline with Seoul, as part of its demand that the South stop activists floating leaflets over the heavily fortified border.
Kim Yo Jong has also hinted at military action, saying Saturday that "the right to taking the next action against the enemy will be entrusted to the general staff of our army."
The General Staff of the Korean People's Army said Tuesday it had been studying an "action plan" to re-enter the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries and "turn the front line into a fortress."
"Our army will rapidly and thoroughly implement any decisions and orders of the Party and government," the KPA said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.
South Korea's presidential Blue House convened a meeting of its National Security Council at 5 p.m. Moon has yet to respond to the demolition of the office, but his aide Youn Kun-young, who participated in the 2018 summits, told a local broadcaster that the North's action was unacceptable.
Inter-Korean relations have chilled since February 2019 when denuclearization talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim collapsed in Hanoi. North Korea demanded that the South take actions for economic projects agreed in 2018, but Seoul refused to do so due to the U.N. sanctions.