North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in the border town of Kaesong on Tuesday. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s powerful younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, had warned about the move earlier when she said the “useless” office will be “completely collapsed.” A building that cost South Korean taxpayers W17 billion was turned into rubble at just one word from a young woman (US$1=W1,212). The office was established under an agreement between the leaders of the two Koreas in 2018, so the demolition can be seen as the scrapping of the solemn promises they made then. The Moon Jae-in administration had tried to appease North Korea by pledging to crack down on activists flying propaganda leaflets across the border, reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex and resume tours to the scenic Mt. Kumgang resort. But North Korea turned up its nose at all such offers.

The sequence seems carefully planned. The North’s military said it will redeploy troops to the various “peace zones” and could resume its own rather ineffectual anti-South Korean propaganda along the border. The North also said it will draft a military plan and submit it for approval by the Central Military Committee, which usually decides on direct attacks against South Korea. The North seems manically intent on ratcheting up tensions using the Kaesong Industrial Complex, Mt. Kumgang resort and the Northern Limit Line separating the two Koreas on the West Sea, which are the usual sticking point in a somewhat ritualized fan dance. It could also conduct nuclear tests and test more intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Kim Jong-un’s aim is not to trigger a war that would result in his demise. This is simply a return to the regime’s tried and tested brinkmanship to stay alive. He is probably trying to ratchet up tensions just short of breaking point so there can then be a “dramatic” settlement that means nothing and simply returns everything to the status quo ante. The world has been there many times before. There was talk of war during the first North Korean nuclear crisis in the early 1990s, but a trip to the North by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter resulted in a nuclear freeze, while Pyongyang won valuable food and energy aid. And during the Lee Myung-bak administration, North Korea apparently attempted to hold a summit seeking economic concessions from South Korea after sinking the Navy corvette Cheonan and shelling Yeonpyeong Island. The North’s ultimate goal this time is to get the U.S. and South Korea to scrap sanctions.

But in fact the developments clearly demonstrate that the sanctions are working. Living conditions in North Korea are said to have grown so bad that the regime even worries about securing the livelihood of the elite in Pyongyang. This is the fruit of efforts to block most of North Korea’s exports, exacerbated by the coronavirus epidemic, which has shut down commerce with China. That makes it impossible for open-air markets to flourish in the North, and they are the only lifeline for many. Experts say North Korea’s foreign currency holdings could run dry soon. That’s why Kim will try to achieve some kind of eye-catching settlement with Moon and U.S. President Donald Trump.

A Minjoo Party lawmaker compared North Korea’s situation with the U.S. police killing of George Floyd in that North Korea “can’t breathe.” But so the North can breathe again quite freely the moment it gives up its nuclear weapons, which will allow international sanctions to end and massive economic support from the international community to flow in like a rush of fresh air. Sanctions are the only non-military option of prodding the North Korean leader to scrap his nuclear weapons. He will continue to thrash and tear, but as long as the U.S. and South Korea maintain their firm resolve, it could actually produce results.

The problem is the U.S. and South Korean governments. The Moon administration is not saying this publicly, but it appears to have given up on efforts to get the North to scrap its nuclear weapons and is only focusing on publicity stunts. That means it is vulnerable to North Korean pressure. And Trump, who faces a re-election struggle in November, could be tempted to put on another show of grins and hugs with Kim Jong-un. The South Korean public, who stand to lose the most under a nuclear-armed North Korea, need to remain vigilant. The time is at hand when they will see the effectiveness or failure of efforts to finally rid the peninsula of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

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