Editor's Note: This fact-check has been updated as indicated below.
On June 9, North Korea cut off all official and unofficial communication channels with South Korea, including the direct hotline between the Blue House (south) and the Forbidden City (north). The move was in response to the distribution of anti-North leaflets flown across the border in giant balloons by civilian activist groups.
“The South Korean authorities connived at the hostile acts against the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] by the riff-raff, while trying to dodge heavy responsibility with nasty excuses,” said the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
Two days later, Ri Yong-Chul, a member of the North Korean People’s Committee, explained the rationale for the DPRK’s actions. His statement was published on Echo of Reunification, a North Korean radio channel, and it condemned the South Korean government for not being harsher with the anti-North groups.
The statement specifically took South Korean President Moon Jae-In to task:
“[President Moon] seemed more humane than previous leaders when he raised both of his hands high at Pyongyang and Mount Baekdu. Having come into power as a result of citizen candle protests, we believed he would be different. But now we believe he is not only the same, but actually worse than his predecessors.”
This statement is misleading.
Compared to President Moon’s most recent predecessors, Park Geun-Hye and Lee Myeong-Bak, the relationship between the two Koreas had seen significant improvement. In April 2018, Moon achieved the Panmunjom Declaration, in which he and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un laid out a plan to reunite the Korean peninsula.
The two leaders met in person at Pyongyang to discuss the declaration. In addition, they climbed up Mount Baekdu together as a gesture of peace. This was the first such meeting since one in 2000 under President Kim Dae-Jung, who received a Nobel Peace Prize largely for his efforts to reconcile with the communist North.
Moon also helped arrange the three summits between Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, the first time ever that meetings had taken place between leaders of the two countries. The summits, in Singapore, Vietnam, and the North-South Demilitarized Zone, initially raised hopes about the possibility of the denuclearization of North Korea, although the momentum has receded since the third meeting in June 2019.
By comparison, the North-South relationship was rocky at best under former presidents Park Geun-Hye and Lee Myeong-Bak.
Lee effectively abandoned Kim Dae-Jung’s Sunshine Policy, which had eased some travel restrictions, as soon as he took office in 2010. His decision was prompted by the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, a South Korean warship, believed to be North Korea’s doing.
Park shut down Kaesong Industrial Park, a collaborative economic project between the two Koreas. North Korea carried out five nuclear missile tests and more provocative firings until an influence-peddling scandal entangled Park and she was impeached for abuse of power and removed from office in 2017. Moon’s election followed that year.
South Korea’s response to the communications cut-off has been measured.
On June 10, the South Korean government announced that it would press charges against Fighters for a Free North Korea and Keun Saem, the two activist groups responsible for the flyers, for violating the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act and shared marine and airspace legislation.
“Northbound leafleting … creates tensions between the South and North and endangers the lives and safety of citizens living near the border,” said Unification Ministry Spokesman Yoh Sang-key during a briefing.
He added: “The North-South hotline is crucial for communication and must be maintained under mutual agreement. We will continue to work toward maintaining peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula.”
Anti-North leafleting has been a frequent issue. A report by the Unification Ministry estimates around 20 million leaflets have been flown across the border since 2010.
Although South Korea has on occasion sent police officers to restrain the activists, the Moon government had been less eager to fully ban leafleting, citing freedom of speech.
North Korea’s drastic response to the flyers is seen as likely the result of built-up frustration over growing financial difficulties. Commerce with its biggest trading partner, China, plummeted after the North closed its border to protect against the coronavirus. South Korea has been unenthusiastic about helping North Korea deal with the U.S.-led economic and financial sanctions aimed at forcing denuclearization.
Pyongyang resumed missile test flights this year, provoking tension with the U.S. Regarding the latest communications shutdown, a U.S. State Department spokesperson told the South Korean Yonhap News: “The United States is committed to engaging the DPRK in meaningful negotiations so that North Koreans can realize a brighter future.”
North Korea fired back, saying that the United States should stay out of the Korean peninsula or “face terrible things.”
June 12 was the second anniversary of the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, while June 25 marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War in 1950.
Despite the North’s rhetoric, Moon has remained conciliatory. In a statement at a commemorative event Monday (June 15), he noted: “Chairman Kim’s groundbreaking efforts” to improve North-South relations and bemoaned not making more progress.
“I also find it very unfortunate the North-U.S. and North-South relationships have not advanced as much as was hoped,” he said.
Moon also asked citizens to “adhere to North-South agreements” and North Korea to not to “shut the windows of communication.”
Update: On June 16, North Korea used explosives to destroy a joint liaison office in the Kaesong Industrial Park, located north of the demilitarized zone between the countries. The facility had opened in 2018 a symbol of North-South cooperation but has been closed since January due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The explosion came after news reports of remarks Saturday by Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, who said the building was useless and ought to be destroyed. North Korean state media again referenced leaflets distributed by defectors as reason for the destruction.
South Korea called the act “very unfortunate,” warning that “all responsibilities lie within the North” and any further provocations would result in “strong countermeasures.”