Dialogue up in Flames: The Aftermath of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office Explosion

Dong Yon Kim (Op-Ed Contributor)

Dong Yon Kim is the IR & PR Director of KORGAD made up of 900 Korean Retired Generals and Admirals. Kim is a former ROK Air Force Officer and former journalist of Chosun News.

On September 21, 2020, a South Korean civil servant got lost near Yeonpyeongdo and was later found dead. South Korean Defense Ministry stated during the September 24th briefing that the civil servant’s body was burned using flammable oil by the North Korean naval guards. Earlier in 2010, North Korea shelled the same area, killing 2 marines and 2 civilians.

For South Koreans, such provocations by Pyongyang is nothing new. Given the sheer magnitude and intensity of provocations over the years, as well as the ongoing difficulties caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, South Koreans have almost become numb to the news.

Many may have already forgotten that North Korea blew up the Inter-Korean Liaison Office – located in Kaesong Industrial Complex – earlier in June. Paid for by the South Korean taxpayers, this four-story structure, tasked with facilitating inter-Korean dialogue, went up in smokes as North Korea detonated explosives on June 16 at 2:50 PM in Korean Standard time. The meteorological conditions were perfect for staging the explosion with 0% humidity, 86º F temperature, and clear air quality – the three variables for the velocity of detonation.

After its destruction, multiple Korean media outlets calculated the cost for Inter-Korean Liaison Office. The initial cost was $6.7 million. In 2018, the South Korean government spent an additional $8.4 million to remodel the building and a total of $13 million for its utility and maintenance.[2]

There is ample proof that this explosion by pre-meditated and pre-planned by North Korea. Any explosion requires a prelude to the detonation which is drilling and charging for the high explosives.[3] About 2 days prior to the explosion, South Korean guard posts near DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) observed suspicious activity.[4] Korean military found strange sparks from the building which presumably were cuts made to the H-beam structure and charging explosives within the building.

Kaesong industrial complex where Inter-Korean Liaison Office used to stand is based on the Inter-Korean promise of peace, unity, and economic prosperity protected by the law of both Koreas. The complex should be kept as a zone of no use of force and respected as such.[5]

The Panmunjom Declaration states that “the two sides agreed to completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain including land, sea, and air that are the root cause of military tension and conflicts.”[6] As such, North Korea cannot unilaterally deliver a threat or undertake provocation against the South. The Declaration was only signed 2 years ago, and with the ink hardly dry on the document, North Korea has breached it without hesitation.

Despite the devastating explosion, which also damaged a 15-storied building of the General Supporting Center next to the liaison office, North Korea did not make any apology or comment afterward. South Korean authorities complained about the incident but no further action has been taken. The minister of unification, Lee In-young told during his public hearing when he was a nominee for the minister, “it would be difficult to get compensation from North Korea.”[7] Since then North Korea has not taken any responsibility for the explosion and no investigation took place for the incident by Korean authority, the Combined Forces Command, or the United Nations Command.

A month before the explosion, United Nations Command investigated the incident of Inter-Korean gunfire at DMZ on the 3rd of May 2020 and concluded both sides violated the armistice on the 26th of May[8], but there has been no investigation regarding the explosion of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office. The USFK commander has a unique role to initiate the investigation for the matter and if necessary the commander can collaborate with the ROK forces via Combined Forces Command (CFC).

Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and South Korea’s article 2 stated either South Korea or the US is threatened by external means; both sides should consider them as an equal threat to them and consult the issue to prevent and deter such a threat to never happen again.[9] Based on this, both South Korea and the US can investigate the incident and implement certain assurance to prevent future provocation from North Korea. There is always a possibility that North Korea can apply this tactic of provocation against the US too. For this matter, both Korea and the US sides consider this new threat to Seoul deeply for deterrence in the future.

Nevertheless, both South Korea and the US gave North Korea a window of opportunity to distance from the provocation. Luckily, there was no reported casualty from the explosion that could have killed innocent civilians at the office.

As no investigation took place, the United Nations and other international organizations have not yet confirmed that explosives were used. Identifying the explosives is key in imposing proper sanctions against Pyongyang by cutting the import of explosives (HS code 3602) and related materials to North Korea and stop producing them domestically. Explosives can be used for conventional Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and to fuel missile and rocket propulsion systems.

In recent years, North Korea has undertaken a special effort to build new fertilizer-producing facilities over entire North Korea, which are known as dual-purpose materials also used for high explosives. One of the well-known fertilizer facilities is the Sunchon fertilizer plant where Kim Jong Un reappeared on May 1, 2020, after 21 days of disappearance.[10] The world paid close attention to Kim Jong Un’s sudden disappearance in mid-April when CNN speculated dictator Kim Jong Un is in ‘grave danger’ based on North Korean escapees’ newsmaker report in Seoul.[11] Such a fertilizer plant is also present at the Kaesong industrial complex not far from the liaison office; according to media familiar to North Korea reported Kaesong fertilizer plant exceeded its production rate by 106% in 2019.[12]

One of the key factors to diagnose the explosives used for the explosion is the smoke which diffused from ground zero.[13] When the liaison office exploded, noticeable black smoke came out of ground zero. Black smoke can come from a variety of explosives but Picric Acid is one of the known organic components which diffuse the black color. This compound can be easily found in fertilizers.[14] Shortly after the incident, KCNA (North Korea Central News Agency) revealed the footage of the explosion that contained the sound of the explosion, showing the footage and sound of the explosion simultaneously. Both the sound and the explosion had no time gap. The footage revealed the VOD and could be calculated by the experts. Unlike fertilizer-based explosives, commercially obtainable gun powder has low VOD, therefore the image of destruction can be seen first and the sound of bang can be heard later.[15]

In conclusion, both South Korea and the US should initiate the investigation over the explosion of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office, exposing North Korea’s activities and calling for compensation and undertaking efforts to prevent such wrongdoing in the future. If South Korea and the US let North Korea get away with this crime, other adversaries will continue to copy and paste similar tactics, especially countries sponsoring terrorism. Nevermind that China and Russia are also enabling Pyongyang. Therefore, it is important for the US to not only counter China’s challenge but also expose Beijing’s ties to North Korea.

Furthermore, the international community should not let North Korea use such provocation as leverage over the Inter-Korean or the US-DPRK dialogue. Gone unscathed, North Korea still has many more explosives to detonate within its territory. One of the highly risky targets for North Korea is the Mountain Kumgang tourist region which was developed by the South Korean government and conglomerates. North Korea can hold tourists hostage for future negotiations and North Korea can also look for similar hostages to use against the US. In order to stop such potentiality, the U.S. and South Korea must demonstrate power against the hostage-taker and not let them do it again.

Both Seoul and Washington must acknowledge the explosion of the liaison office as the gray-zone threat which embeds two new mechanisms of the provocation. One is the indirectness and the other is physical destruction. North Korea has performed a direct attack on the South like YP-do mortar shelling in 2010 which damaged the South directly from the North. Also, North Korea initiated multiple cyber-attacks against the South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) network in 2016 which is considered an indirect provocation. Unlike the previous cases, the explosion of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office is somewhere between the two types of provocation to the South. It is a physical attack but does not directly affect South Korea’s territory.

Recently, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) came up with a new solution to counter such threats; Israel created the Special Forces under the Israeli Air Force’s 7th wing that works to counter new threats effectively.[16] It enabled surgical counter-operations in a fast and effective manner. Both Seoul and Washington can come up with a similar solution to counter North Korea’s future gray-zone provocations.


[2] Chosun Biz https://biz.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2020/06/16/2020061603433.html

[3] Drilling and blasting https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drilling_and_blasting

[4] YTN https://www.ytn.co.kr/_ln/0101_202006172153462766

[5] Korea law http://www.law.go.kr/%EB%B2%95%EB%A0%B9/%EA%B0%9C%EC%84%B1%EA%B3%B5%EC%97%85%EC%A7%80%EA%B5%AC%EC%A7%80%EC%9B%90%EC%97%90%EA%B4%80%ED%95%9C%EB%B2%95%EB%A5%A0/(12277)

[6] MOFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) https://www.mofa.go.kr/eng/brd/m_5478/view.do?seq=319130&srchFr=&amp%3BsrchTo=&amp%3BsrchWord=&amp%3BsrchTp=&amp%3Bmulti_itm_seq=0&amp%3Bitm_seq_1=0&amp%3Bitm_seq_2=0&amp%3Bcompany_cd=&amp%3Bcompany_nm=&page=1&titleNm=

[7] Chosun Daily https://www.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2020/07/20/2020072000115.html

[8] Joongang Daily https://news.joins.com/article/23786132

[9] Mutual Defense Treaty (USFK Copy) https://www.usfk.mil/Portals/105/Documents/SOFA/H_Mutual%20Defense%20Treaty_1953.pdf

[10] Voice of America (VOA) https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/kim-jong-un-reappears-after-another-3-week-absence#:~:text=SEOUL%2C%20SOUTH%20KOREA%20%2D%20North%20Korean,amid%20rumors%20about%20his%20health.&text=A%20wave%20of%20unconfirmed%20reports,reports%20said%20he%20had%20died.

[11] CNN https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/20/politics/kim-jong-un-north-korea/index.html

[12] KCNA Watch https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1563764424-778294265/%EA%B0%9C%EC%84%B1%EC%9C%A0%EA%B8%B0%EC%A7%88%EB%B3%B5%ED%95%A9%EB%B9%84%EB%A3%8C%EA%B3%B5%EC%9E%A5%EC%97%90%EC%84%9C-%EB%85%84%EA%B0%84%EA%B3%84%ED%9A%8D-106%EB%A1%9C-%EC%99%84%EC%88%98

[13] New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/stories-in-the-smoke-what-a-bomb-expert-sees

[14] MILITARY EXPLOSIVES OF TO-DAY https://www.jstor.org/stable/41347790

[15] Wired https://www.wired.com/2013/04/boston-bomb-smoke/

[16] The Times of Israel https://www.timesofisrael.com/air-force-brings-all-special-forces-under-one-roof-with-new-7th-squadron/#gs.gc49de

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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