Updated: Jun 17
On June 15, 2020, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), otherwise known as North Korea, indicated it was contemplating re-entering border areas that had previously been demilitarized under an agreement with the South Korean government. The announcement comes amid heightened tensions along the DMZ, with North Korean leaders issuing scathing statements targeting Seoul's indifference to the distribution of propaganda leaflets by anti-regime campaigners.
North Korean defectors and South Korean activists have regularly sent propaganda leaflets, food, money, and mini-radios over the DMZ via balloons and drones in hopes of spreading news of the western world in the hermit kingdom. North Korea has repeatedly protested the South's lack of action against such actors, with the most heated protests from Pyongyang coming in the last two weeks.
In a statement provided to the Korean Central News Agency by the General Staff of the Korean People's Army (KPA), North Korea warned, "Our army is keeping a close watch on the current situation in which the north-south relations are turning worse and worse, and getting itself fully ready for providing a sure military guarantee to any external measures to be taken by the Party and government." They further announced that the KPA was reviewing, "an action plan for taking measures to make the army advance again into the zones that had been demilitarized under the north-south agreement, turn the front line into a fortress and further heighten the military vigilance against the south."
From what little information is publicly available, it appears as though Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un's sister, ordered the KPA to review potential troop movements. In early April, questions surrounding Kim Jong Un’s health emerged after an unprecedented three-week disappearance. Yo was commonly believed to be the most likely person to succeed Un if he proved unable to perform his duties as Supreme Leader. Thankfully, Kim Jong Un reappeared, and life continued as usual. However, the incident showed that Yo had emerged as a potential successor to the family business. Yo's order to the KPA simply highlights her growing role in the North Korean government rather than a potential leadership struggle in Pyongyang.
If the KPA moved to re-enter previously demilitarized border areas, the old and cold status quo would be reasserted and tensions would undoubtedly, albeit temporarily, flare. South Koreans can take comfort, however, in the fact that such an act would be highly unlikely to cause a full out war between the North and South. The KPA is an aging military force, and has suffered deeply under the crushing sanctions of the west. Thus, it would be unable to move across the border with any efficiency.
The DPRK's standing army first saw action during the Korean War (1950-1953). Today, it continues to face the combined forces of the United States and the South Korea at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a nearly 250 kilometer long border that has been highly militarized for over 60 years. Despite this, long gone are the days of the 1950s and 1960s, when the North maintained an edge over its arch-rival to the south and was able to honestly threaten its neighbor with an invasion. Economic mismanagement, corruption, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and South Korean economic and military development has left the KPA a shadow of its old self.
However, the North Korean government has doggedly pursued nuclear weapons and aggressively developed ballistic missiles. In the early 2000s, they seemingly realized that they would be unable to preserve conventional equivalence with the South, and sought to develop non-conventual superiority. The North's ability to utilize such weapons of mass destruction will undoubtedly play a role in the South's response if demilitarized zones are reoccupied.
The United States Department of State announced it is monitoring the situation, and the Department of Defense has reportedly placed some units on a higher alert status.
Update - (6/16/20 - 0600 CDT)
On June 16, 2020, the North Korean government destroyed the inter-Korean liaison office just north of the highly militarized DMZ. Although the building is on North Korean soil, and no South Korean citizens or diplomats were in the vicinity, it is the most provocative act Pyongyang has taken since the start of diplomatic talks with the United States in 2018.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.