North Korea destroys empty liaison office with South

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FILE - In this Sept. 14, 2018, file photo, South Korea's Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, center left, and Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification, center right, attend at an opening ceremony for two Koreas' first liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea. South Korea on Tuesday, June 16, 2020, says North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office amid rising tensions between the rivals. (Korea Pool/Yonhap via AP, File)

SEOUL – North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office building just north of the heavily armed border with South Korea on Tuesday, in a carefully choreographed, largely symbolic display of anger that puts pressure on Washington and Seoul amid deadlocked nuclear diplomacy.

Although the building was empty and the North had previously signaled its plans to destroy it, the move is still the most provocative act by North Korea since it entered nuclear talks in 2018 after a U.S.-North Korean standoff had many fearing war. It will pose a serious setback to the efforts of liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in to engage the North.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said the country destroyed the office in a “terrific explosion” because its “enraged people” were determined to “force (the) human scum, and those who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes,” apparently referring to North Korean defectors living in South Korea who for years have floated anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.

The news agency did not detail how the office in the North Korean border town of Kaesong was destroyed.

South Korea’s government later released military surveillance video showing clouds of smoke rising from the ground as a building collapsed at a now-shuttered joint industrial park in Kaesong where the liaison office stood.

South Korea issued a statement expressing “strong regret” over the destruction of the building, warning of a stern response if North Korea takes additional steps that aggravate tensions.

The statement, issued following an emergency National Security Council meeting, said the demolition is “an act that betrays hopes for an improvement in South-North Korean relations and the establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

South Korea’s Defense Ministry said separately that it closely monitors North Korean military activities and was prepared to strongly counter any future provocations. The South's vice unification minister, Suh Ho, who was Seoul’s top official at the liaison office, called the demolition an “unprecedentedly senseless act" that shocked “not only our people, but the whole world.”