SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea is suspending military action plans against South Korea, the official KCNA news agency reported on Wednesday, as a report from Seoul suggested North Korean troops were taking down loudspeakers reinstalled at the fortified border.
Political tensions between the rival Koreas had been rising over Pyongyang’s objections to plans by defector-led groups in the South to send propaganda leaflets into the North. Stalled negotiations regarding economic sanctions imposed because of the North’s nuclear weapons programme had also fuelled tensions.
It was not immediately clear why North Korea had softened its position, which came after it blew up a liaison office last week and cut off communication hotlines with the South.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presided over a video conference meeting of the ruling party’s Central Military Commission on Tuesday, where members “took stock of the prevailing situation” before deciding to suspend the military plans, KCNA said, without elaborating.
The committee also discussed documents outlining measures for “further bolstering the war deterrent of the country,” KCNA reported.
Late on Wednesday, KCNA issued another statement by Kim Yong Chol, a senior Pyongyang official, criticising the South Korean defence minister’s remarks to parliament that the North’s actions must be withdrawn, not suspended.
Kim called the comment “foolish and inappropriate”, warning Seoul should “think and behave wisely” not create a greater crisis.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing unnamed military sources, said North Korea’s military was seen removing about 10 loudspeakers near the demilitarised zone (DMZ) on Wednesday, just days after they were seen reinstalling around 20 of the devices.
About 40 such systems had been taken down after the two Koreas signed an accord in 2018 to cease “all hostile acts”.
A spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, said it was monitoring the situation and had no change in its stance that inter-Korean agreements should be kept.
The ministry also confirmed South Korean media reports that a number of official North Korea propaganda websites had removed some articles critical of South Korea, though the spokesman said it was unclear why.
South Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young said Seoul would continue efforts to prevent escalation, and call for Washington and Beijing to help achieve denuclearisation and peace on the Korean peninsula, which was “made even more distant” by their rivalry.
“Dialogue, steadfast engagement and a healthy dose of patience are the only constructive options for moving forward,” Cho said in a video speech to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Kim Jong Un’s decision to suspend the unspecified military actions may represent a reprieve from weeks of increasingly provocative moves by North Korea.
Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, warned last week of retaliatory measures against South Korea that could involve the military, without elaborating.
The General Staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) later said it had been studying an “action plan” that included sending troops into joint tourism and economic zones, reoccupying border guard posts that had been abandoned under the 2018 pact, taking steps to “turn the front line into a fortress”, and supporting plans for the North to send its own propaganda leaflets into the South.
Jenny Town, with the U.S.-based North Korea-monitoring website 38 North, said anti-South Korea rhetoric from the North over the past week had left room for flexibility, but it was still unclear where the latest moves would lead.
“Overall, it doesn’t appear that the North has necessarily wanted to be overly provocative,” she said. “While it seems set on reversing the measures taken in the inter-Korean agreements -in a dramatic fashion - so far, the rhetoric has already been milder since the demolition of the liaison office.”
The KCNA report sent shares of South Korea’s defence-related firms, which have risen during the heightened tensions, into a tailspin early on Wednesday. Victek Co Ltd, Speco and Firstec Co Ltd tumbled more than 20% each, while the benchmark KOSPI and junior KOSDAQ was trading up 1.3% and 0.9%, respectively, as of 0032 GMT.
Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Sangmi Cha, Joori Roh and Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Lincoln Feast and Alison Williams