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North Korea suspends planned military action against South, but tensions remain

North Korea prepares anti-South leaflets amid tensions
North Korea is gearing up to send propaganda leaflets over its southern border, denouncing North Korean defectors and South Korea, its state media said on Saturday, the latest retaliation for leaflets from the South as bilateral tensions rise. The two Koreas, which are still technically at war as their 1950-53 conflict ended without a peace treaty, have waged leaflet campaigns for decades.

North Korea has decided to suspend military action plans against South Korea, the official KCNA news agency reported on Wednesday, as a report suggested North Korean troops were taking down loudspeakers recently 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 program had also fueled tensions.

Read more: North Korea says military will redeploy at former inter-Korean cooperation sites

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, the report said, without elaborating.

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North Korea blows up joint Korean liaison office, South Korea warns action if tensions rise
North Korea blows up joint Korean liaison office, South Korea warns action if tensions rise

The committee also discussed documents outlining measures for “further bolstering the war deterrent of the country,” KCNA reported.

North Korea’s military was seen removing about 10 loudspeakers near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on Wednesday, just days after they were seen reinstalling around 20 of the devices, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported, citing unnamed military sources. About 40 such systems were taken down after the two Koreas signed an accord in 2018 to cease “all hostile acts.”

Read more: South Korean activists float thousands of defector leaflets to North amid tensions

A spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, said it is monitoring the situation and had no change in its stance that inter-Korean agreements should be kept.

The ministry also confirmed 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.

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Next steps unknown

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.

North Korea’s youth hold rally against defector leaflets
North Korea’s youth hold rally against defector leaflets

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 will lead.

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Read more: Kim Jong Un’s sister says South Korea an ‘enemy,’ threatens military action

“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 defense-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, and Joori Roh; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Lincoln Feast.)