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North Korea blows up liaison office as tensions rise with South | South Korea News

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North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office building on Tuesday after issuing a series of threats in a major escalation with South Korea as years of diplomatic progress quickly fades away.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry said the destruction of the building in the North Korean border town of Kaesong happened at 2:49pm local time (05:49 GMT). South Korean media reported a large explosion was heard and smoke could be seen rising over Kaesong.

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Black-and-white surveillance video released by South Korea’s defence ministry showed a large blast that appeared to bring down the four-storey structure. The explosion also appeared to cause a partial collapse of a neighbouring 15-storey high-rise that had served as a residential facility for South Korean officials who staffed the liaison office.

The North – which has a long track record of pressuring South Korea when it fails to extract concessions from the United States – has repeatedly bashed the South in recent weeks over declining bilateral relations and its inability to stop leafleting by defectors and activists.

Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said the North destroyed the office to “force human scum and those who have sheltered the scum to pay dearly for their crimes” – apparently referring to North Korean defectors who for years have floated anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.

The inter-Korean liaison office was established in 2018 as part of a series of projects aimed at reducing tensions between the two Koreas.

Joint Liaison Office - Korea

The joint liaison office in Kaesong Industrial Complex was set up in 2018 to facilitate activities between the rival Koreas [Yonhap via Reuters]

South Korean defence ministry warned of “strong response” to any North Korean military provocations.

The destruction of the office “broke the expectations of all people who hope for the development of inter-Korean relations and lasting peace on the peninsula”, deputy national security adviser Kim You-geun told a briefing.

“We’re making clear that the North is entirely responsible for all the consequences this might cause,” he said.

Later on Tuesday, the United States urged North Korea to avoid further “counterproductive” steps.

“The United States fully supports the ROK’s efforts on inter-Korean relations and urges the DPRK to refrain from further counterproductive actions,” a State Department spokesperson said, referring to the South and North by their official names.

‘Serious action’

When the office was operating, dozens of officials from both sides would work in the building, with South Koreans travelling each week into the North. The office has been closed since January over coronavirus fears.

In recent days, Pyongyang has made several threats against Seoul and threatened to destroy the office if defector groups there continue with their campaign to send propaganda leaflets and other material across the border.

On Saturday, Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, warned that Seoul will soon witness “a tragic scene of the useless North-South liaison office being completely collapsed”.

She also said she would leave to North Korea’s military the right to take the next step of retaliation against South Korea.

Robert Kelly, a Koreas analyst from Pusan National University, said while the leaflets were cited as the reason for blowing up the office, North Korea has been seeking to bring other grievances back into the international spotlight, including crippling US sanctions.

“They’ve never taken serious action like this, it is actually quite surprising,” Kelly told Al Jazeera. “It is reflective of larger things – the North Koreans are disappointed that South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been able to achieve so little. The Americans have pushed the South Koreans very hard not to cut a deal with North Korea.”  

‘Very serious development’

Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Seoul, said the incident is “very serious development”, but added it was “not completely out of the blue”.

“There have been increasingly threatening noises from North Korea, especially in the past week.”

Earlier on Tuesday, North Korea’s military also threatened to move back into zones that were demilitarised under inter-Korean peace agreements, as the communist country continued to dial up pressure on rival South Korea.

The Korean People’s Army said it was reviewing a ruling party recommendation to advance into unspecified border areas and “turn the front line into a fortress”.

Several defector-led groups have been sending leaflets – together with food, one-dollar bills, mini radios and USB sticks containing South Korean dramas and news – over the border and said they will continue with their campaign this week, despite North Korean threats and South Korea saying it will take legal action.

The leaflets usually carry messages critical of Kim Jong Un.

Inter-Korean relations have been strained since the breakdown of a second summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Vietnam in early 2019. That summit fell apart because of disputes over how much sanctions should be lifted in return for Kim’s dismantling his main nuclear complex.

Kim later vowed to expand his nuclear arsenal, introduce a new strategic weapon, and overcome the US-led sanctions that he said “stifles” his country’s economy.




South Korea on alert after threat from sister of North Korean leader

Some analysts say North Korea appears to be using the leaflet issue as an excuse to increase pressure on South Korea amid stalled denuclearisation talks.

“The leaflets are an excuse or justification to raise the ante, manufacture a crisis, and bully Seoul to get what it wants,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group, a Belgium-based independent non-profit organisation.

Last week, North Korea severed hotlines with South Korea as the first step towards shutting down all contact with Seoul.

South Korea said the defector groups’ actions increase cross-border tensions, pose risks to residents living near the border, and cause environmental damage.

On Monday, Moon urged Pyongyang to keep peace agreements reached by the two leaders and return to dialogue.



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‘Chilling’ crackdown on dissent in Vietnam ahead of key congress | Vietnam News

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As Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party gears up for its most important meeting in years, its leadership has presided over an intensified crackdown on dissent, according to rights groups, activists and data collated by Reuters news agency.

A record number of political prisoners, longer jail terms, and increased harassment of activists in recent years have contributed to the crackdown ahead of this week’s Communist Party congress, a gathering to determine national leadership and policy that takes place once every five years.

The crackdown has left some international human rights groups and legislators questioning whether Vietnam has breached the spirit of trade agreements with Western countries – accords that have helped propel the country to a position of economic strength in Southeast Asia.

“I have been summoned by the police several times since December 9, 2020,” said Nguyen Quang A, a veteran activist in Hanoi, declining to detail the circumstances saying he was subject to an ongoing investigation. He told Reuters Vietnam’s security ministry had in recent weeks rounded up other government critics without saying why, citing his contacts with activists.

“They [the police] summon them and find reasons to convict them under those very fuzzy articles of criminal law. It completely violates the law but they use it very regularly,” said Quang A. “I’ve told them they can’t shut me up.”

Vietnam’s foreign ministry, which handles inquiries from foreign media, did not respond to Reuters’s request for comment on activist detentions.

‘Anti-state’

Despite reforms and increasing openness to social change, the Communist Party of Vietnam, led by 76-year-old Nguyen Phu Trong, tolerates little criticism and controls domestic media tightly.

Vietnam drew international condemnation this month when it sentenced three freelance journalists known for criticism of the government to between 11 and 15 years in prison, finding them guilty of spreading anti-state propaganda.

Journalists Pham Chi Dung, right, Le Huu Minh Tuan, centre, and Nguyen Tuong Thuy, left, stand between police during their trial at a court in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam January 5, 2021 [VNA/Handout via Reuters]

The country’s constitution says it protects “freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of the press, access to information, to assemble, form associations and hold demonstrations”.

In reality, public criticism of the party is not tolerated, and groups which promote democratisation are targeted by the authorities in a battle playing out online on platforms like Facebook, Vietnam’s premier platform for both e-commerce and dissent.

A Reuters tally based on state media reports found 280 people were arrested for “anti-state” activities over the five years since the last party congress: 260 were convicted, many being sentenced to more than 10 years in jail. In the five years leading up to the 2016 congress, there were 68 arrests and 58 convictions.

‘Force 47’

Last year, Amnesty International said it had recorded the most “prisoners of conscience” in Vietnam since it began publishing figures in 1996 – 170, close to double the 97 recorded in 2018. Of the 170, some 70 were arrested for online activism, Amnesty said.

In late 2017, Vietnam unveiled a 10,000-strong military cyber-unit, Force 47, to counter what it said were “wrong” views on the internet. According to rights groups, the unit also recruits volunteers online to target dissidents and activists.

Reuters reviewed dozens of posts across multiple Facebook groups and pages from December and January that claimed links with Force 47. Many attacked prominent activists, including Quang A, accused by one group of creating anti-state propaganda.

A woman wearing a traditional conical hat walks past a poster for the upcoming 13th national congress of Vietnam Communist Party on a street in Hanoi, Vietnam, January 18, 2021 [Kham/Reuters]

Some group moderators were dressed in military uniform in their profile photos while others ran pages for official local branches of Communist Party organisations.

Last November, Vietnam threatened to shut Facebook down if it did not toughen rules on local political content on the platform.

Facebook’s local servers were taken offline by the government earlier last year until it agreed to significantly increase policing of “anti-state” posts by local users, a request with which Facebook previously said it complied.

A Facebook spokesman said the company faced “additional pressure” from Vietnam to restrict content last year.

‘Driver’s seat’

For some, the crackdown has a connection with fluctuations in global trade ties with Vietnam.

“During the [former US President Barack] Obama administration, pressure on rights connected with TPP [trade] negotiations helped the cause of human rights activists and political dissidents,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“The early visit of Prime Minister [Nguyen Xuan] Phuc in 2017 to the Trump White House saw human rights completely dropped from the agenda,” he said.

Robertson said trade tensions with China have also left Vietnam “in the driver’s seat” as US and European Union companies look for alternative supply chains, helping the Vietnamese economy thrive.

“The EU had an important opportunity to make real changes through the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement,” said Robertson, referring to a pact that has been a boon for Vietnam. Instead, he said, the EU “fell short, settling for vague promises … instead of substantive changes”.

EU officials did not immediately respond to Reuters’s request for comment.

After the jailing of the three journalists earlier this month, the United Nations human rights office said: “Coming just weeks ahead [of the party congress], the convictions and long sentences are not only a blatant suppression of independent journalism but also a clear attempt to create a chilling effect among those willing to criticise the government.”

The United States described the sentences as the “latest in a troubling and accelerating trend of arrests and convictions of Vietnamese citizens exercising rights enshrined in Vietnam’s constitution”.



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