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INTERVIEW | North Korea Provokes with Balloons and GPS Jamming: Why Now?

In an interview, Dr Cha Du Hyeogn talks about factors behind the recent trash balloons and other hostilities of North Korea and what neighbors can expect next.



Joint Security Area in the demilitarized zone of the Korean Peninsula (Public Domain)

Lately, tensions in the Korean Peninsula have escalated following North Korea's provocative actions. In May and June, the authoritarian regime launched numerous rubbish-filled balloons from North Korea across the demilitarized border into South Korea. They resulted in widespread chaos and property damage.

The maneuver followed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's declaration in December, naming South Korea as its principal enemy. Earlier in 2024, tensions rose when the Kim regime conducted live-fire drills near a disputed sea boundary and tested multiple ballistic missiles in violation of United Nations sanctions.

Against the backdrop, the renewed ties between North Korea and Russia cause new concern. Their relationship has seen significant growth since the onset of the Ukraine war in February 2022. In exchange for vital resources, the Kim regime has been supplying Russia with millions of rounds of ammunition to support their protracted conflict.

Dr Cha Du Hyeogn, a security expert and principal researcher at Asan Institute for Policy Studies, says the provocations may increase before the November US presidential election. He recently shared his insights with JAPAN Forward in an interview. Excerpts follow.

Dr Cha Du Hyeogn (Courtesy of the Asan Insitute for Policy Studies)

Could the tensions in the Korean Peninsula escalate further? 

The recent provocation isn't just a psychological tactic; it marks a notable shift in North Korea's behavior. Until May [2024], North Korea's actions seemed like displays of strength. But the latest attack is a clear escalation. North Korea's use of balloons carrying trash, along with GPS signal jamming along our maritime borders, represents a deliberate move to cause property damage and endanger civilian lives. 

This shift towards more direct aggression suggests heightened provocations in the future. However, they may not necessarily reach the scale of the Yeongpyeong Island bombardment or the sinking of the Cheonan Battleship in 2010.

What factors might be driving North Korea to undertake such overt actions?

Several factors appear to be driving North Korea's recent actions. First, amidst waning media attention, the Kim regime seeks to reclaim prominence and strengthen its presence. Particularly with the United States presidential election approaching. This could explain a more assertive stance.

The orchestrated attacks also serve a dual purpose. Domestically, they reinforce the narrative that South Korea is no longer viewed as a potential partner for reunification. Rather, it is a primary adversary. Internationally, Pyongyang justifies its actions as responses to South Korea's increasing military ties with the US and provocative leaflets sent by Southern activists.

Additionally, North Korea's frustration is evident following two summits with Vladimir Putin in 2023 and 2024. Kim had aimed to solidify a new alliance with China and Russia to counterbalance South Korea, Japan, and the US. Traditionally seen as subordinate to Moscow and Beijing, Kim sought parity for North Korea. However, these efforts did not yield the desired results.

Debris believed to have been carried by balloons from North Korea scattered on the streets of Gyeonggi Province, South Korea, June 1 (© Yonhap News and Kyodo)

What are the consequences of South Korea's decision to suspend the 2018 Inter-Korean Military Agreement?

Since the end of 2023, North Korea has effectively disregarded the agreement by conducting military drills near the demarcation line. It has preoccupied guardposts and launched military reconnaissance satellites (albeit the latest one failed). With Pyongyang's persistent defiance, there's little rationale for South Korea to uphold the agreement. Furthermore, doubts about its effectiveness are now validated.

The agreement was signed during the previous Moon Jae In administration with the aim of encouraging positive behavior changes in North Korea. However, continuing to honor the agreement has become increasingly untenable in the absence of reciprocal actions from Pyongyang.

You talked about the need for South Korea and Japan to strengthen relationships beyond the 2023 Camp David Agreement. 

I was emphasizing the necessity of enhancing strategic communication between South Korea and Japan. To achieve this, all key governmental departments in both countries must be committed to revitalizing their relationship. 

This commitment should extend beyond the presidential and prime minister's offices or the foreign ministries alone. Departments such as the Economics Ministry and the Unification Ministry also need to share this sentiment.

Had there been genuine strategic communication between both countries, I believe the recent Line Yahoo crisis could have been averted.

Prime Minister Kishida and South Korean President Yoon attend arrive at the Japan-China-South Korea summit meeting in Seoul on May 27. (Pool photo)

Was the emphasis overly tilted toward rebuilding security relationships? 

While security remains paramount, both countries need to reassess their mutual reliance in regional crises like those involving North Korea or Taiwan. Does South Korea genuinely require Japan's assistance in the event of a serious North Korea contingency? 

Without effectively conveying these critical points to our citizens, sustaining a lasting security relationship becomes challenging.

How would a potential return of Donald Trump to the White House impact the security landscape in the Korean Peninsula?

Regarding North Korea, I foresee the Kim regime potentially escalating its behavior in the months leading up to the November election. A 7th nuclear weapons test limited to one with a strategically constrained capacity is possible. 

However, I doubt Donald Trump 2.0 would pursue direct negotiations with North Korea as he did during his previous term. Especially given the Hanoi Summit's failure in 2018. Likewise, the Republican Party generally does not view a nuclear deal with North Korea favorably. 

Instead, [Trump] might prioritize resolving crises in Ukraine and the Middle East to maintain global attention.

Concerning South Korea, Trump 2.0 might boost pressure on increasing defense cost-sharing and threaten US troops' withdrawal from the Peninsula. Yet, a significant departure from the current status quo is improbable.


Interview by: Kenji Yoshida