When we say in conversation that people had a disagreement and it blew up, that is usually a metaphor. North Korea had a difference with South Korea and literally blew something up. The country destroyed a symbol of cooperation, a joint liaison office used for meetings between the two countries. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul. Hi there, Anthony.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: What was this office, exactly?
KUHN: Well, some people call it a sort of de facto embassy. It was one of the few points of physical contact between the two Koreas. And it was in another symbol of cooperation, something called the Kaesong joint industrial zone just north of the DMZ — the demilitarized zone. There used to be factories there jointly run by the two sides. That hasn't operated for years. And then, the two sides pulled their liaison officers out of this office earlier this year.
So this was a very dramatic, theatrical sort of move. But it wasn't unexpected because Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong, had warned about this over the weekend. She said the thing — the office had become useless and they were going to destroy it. At the same time, Seoul takes it quite seriously. They say they're going to hold North Korea responsible for this action. And if they stage more provocations, they're going to respond strongly.
INSKEEP: Well, what made the North Koreans unhappy enough to blow up this empty building?
KUHN: Well, on the surface, Pyongyang says it is punishing Seoul for allowing North Korean defectors who've defected to South Korea to send anti-Pyongyang propaganda into the North. And what these defectors do is they attach leaflets to balloons or they put them in bottles and float them through the air or water into the North. And North Korea has been angry about this for a long time. And they've had a pattern of lashing out over this over the years.
Now, it just so happens that, currently, the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in is very committed to engaging with the North. So they've started to actually crack down on the defectors and tried to stop them from sending these leaflets. But that hasn't appeased Pyongyang at all.
INSKEEP: OK. So they were unhappy about this, what they see as a propaganda campaign. But does blowing up the building also fit into a wider shift in North Korea's approach to the world?
KUHN: Yeah. I think so. I mean, you remember that back in February of 2019, there was an abortive summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. And after that, Kim Jong Un signaled that he didn't think he could get a deal with the U.S. in which he could give up a part of his nuclear arsenal, in exchange get sanctions relief. And so he signaled that he was going to focus on building up his country's military.
And so for the past months, we've just seen many instances of North Korea pressuring the South, snubbing the South, testing rockets and artillery, rejecting offers of humanitarian aid, criticizing cooperation between Seoul in Washington and that military alliance. And at the same time, many analysts say this is a return to an old playbook. It resorts to distractions to distract from economic hardships at home.
INSKEEP: Does the North Korean playbook have some other provocations in it?
KUHN: Well, Pyongyang has signaled that it will go back on 2018 agreements to reduce military tensions, that they're no longer bound by moratoriums on testing nuclear weapons and strategic missiles. But experts think they may not go far — that far as back to the days of fire and fury of 2017 because that could irk China, on whom they're sort of relying for an economic lifeline as relations with the U.S. and South Korea sour.
INSKEEP: Antony, thanks for the update.
KUHN: You're welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking after North Korea exploded a building near the demilitarized zone with South Korea.