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N Korea at crossroads

North and South Korea cling to tenuous peace on war anniversary

After weeks of tensions, Pyongyang edges back from brink of fresh confrontation

Kim Yo Jong, foreground, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who is walking with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang on Sept. 18, 2018.   © AP

SEOUL -- On a milestone war anniversary, the two Koreas are clinging to a tenuous peace after weeks of heightened tensions.

North Korea appeared to step back from the brink of confrontation on Wednesday, with state media announcing that leader Kim Jong Un had decided to scuttle plans for military action against its southern neighbor. South Korea's military later reported having observed North Korean troops removing propaganda loudspeakers from near the border.

The recent frictions underscore the legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which hardened the division of the Korean Peninsula into decades of mostly low-boil conflict. The two sides both maintain a large military presence along the border and periodically engage in rhetorical battles that send jitters through the region.

On Thursday's 70th anniversary of the conflict's start, the two countries will not hold any kind of joint commemoration.

Earlier this month, North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in the border city of Kaesong. The office was intended to be a place where officials from the two sides could hold meetings, work out details of cooperative projects and eventually work toward reunification.

Along with turning the office into rubble, North Korea also announced that it would from now on approach South Korea as an "enemy," effectively concluding two years of rapprochement.

As explanation for its more combative posture, North Korea pointed to South Korean activist groups that launch balloons containing propaganda leaflets across the border into the North. In recent statements delivered in the name of Kim Yo Jong, younger sister of Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang accused the South Korean administration of President Moon Jae-in of reneging on promises the two sides made at a summit in 2018 by failing to stop the leaflet launches.

Coming in for particular criticism was Park Sang-hak, a defector and activist, who has for years been a thorn in the side of North Korea's leadership for spearheading a campaign to send leaflets harshly critical of the North Korean state, along with USB sticks and U.S. one dollar bills.

Park says it is the detailed criticisms of North Korea's leadership in his leaflets that irk Pyongyang. They accuse Kim Jong Un of hoarding wealth while most North Koreans live in poverty, while explaining that 116 countries voted in favor of United Nations' sanctions on the country that have made the North an international pariah.

Under a heading that translates as "a devil who kills his older brother, Kim Jong Un is a butcher of humans," the leaflet also details the 2017 murder of Kim Jong Nam, the current leader's estranged half-brother, at an airport in Malaysia, as well as the execution in 2013 of their uncle Jang Song Thaek.

Park Sang-hak, a defector from North Korea, has for years been a thorn in the side of Pyongyang for spearheading a campaign to send leaflets from South Korea containing harsh criticism of the North Korean state. (Photo by Steven Borowiec)

"In North Korea, people think of Kim Jong Un as being like a god," Park told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview in a Seoul park on Monday, while two bodyguards stood watch on either side of him. "If people knew the facts of his savagery, they wouldn't look up to him in this godlike way."

"No matter how much Kim lies, he can't cover up the truth," he said

Pyongyang pledged on Monday to turn Park's own methods against him by flying 3,000 balloons carrying millions of leaflets into South Korea.

Park has actually managed to earn the ire of governments in both Koreas. The liberal Moon administration considers the actions of defector-led civic groups, which are allied with the conservative side of South Korea's political divide, to be counterproductive theatrics that only frustrate Pyongyang and make reconciliation more difficult.

While Moon is currently operating from a position of strength politically -- his party enjoys a firm majority in the national legislature -- the South Korean public appears to be losing patience with his efforts to make nice with North Korea.

A survey released Monday by polling company RealMeter showed that Moon's approval rating fell 4.8 percentage points to 53.4% the week that North Korea blew up the liaison office.

There is a growing sense that, despite Moon's efforts, North Korea is unlikely to change in any significant way.

"It is naive of President Moon to believe that Kim Jong Un will give up nuclear weapons as part of a peace regime after North Korea has spent 20 years rushing to develop its military," said Kim Keun-sik, a professor at Kyungnam University and a prominent political commentator.

Moon's government is nevertheless working to prevent launches of leaflets by dispatching police to cut access to areas near the border from where they are sent. The government has also vowed to pass legislation that would make Park's launches illegal, and recently pledged to press criminal charges against his organization.

Park said his group, Fighters for a Free North Korea, carried out a balloon launch this week that he did not participate in, as he says the South Korean government is monitoring his movements.

He argues that the Moon administration is abandoning South Korea's own standards as a liberal democracy to appease North Korea. When asked about the government's efforts to silence him, Park asked, "Is this Pyongyang? Or is this Seoul? Sometimes nowadays, I get confused about which one I live in."

Park was born in 1968 in Hyesan, a city on North Korea's border with China. He left the North in 1999, arrived in the South in 2000, and carried out his first balloon launch in 2006. He has become a hero to those who see him as courageously trying to undermine a dictatorial regime, but a troublemaker to others who consider his efforts rude and harmful.

For Park, times of heightened inter-Korean tensions when his activities become topics of heated public debate are a double-edged sword: He says that donations to his group have doubled of late, though he has recently had to expand his security detail to deal with a larger number of death threats in South Korea, on top of the ever present danger that North Korean agents could seek him out for harm.

"Without justice, there can be no peace," Park said, adding, however, that he does not live in fear of assassination by North Korea. "It would be an honor to be killed by them," he said.

Park also made headlines for a different reason this week, when a video by broadcaster SBS appeared to show him assaulting reporters who had been gathered at the front door to his home. Police said they will investigate the incident.

Park released a statement on Thursday, claiming that upon his return home, he took the SBS crew for North Korean agents. Park claims that they refused to show him their business cards, and he explained that he keeps his address secret to protect him and his family from threats of violence.

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