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 more than a year 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.More: 'Human scum': North Korea says leaflets put Seoul pact at risk 'Accounts to settle': North Korea cuts hotline with South over balloon leaflets North Korea's Kim vows to further bolster nuclear war deterrence
South Korean military officials watched live surveillance imagery of the building as it was blown up.
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.
The joint liaison office in Kaesong Industrial Complex was set up in 2018 to facilitate activities between the rival Koreas [Yonhap via Reuters]
When it 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.'Very serious development'
Al Jazeera's Rob McBride, reporting from Seoul, said that 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 had also threatened to move back into zones that were demilitarised under inter-Korean peace agreements as the country continued to dial up pressure on rival South Korea.
The General Staff of the Korean People’s Army said it is reviewing a ruling party recommendation to advance into unspecified border areas that had been demilitarised under agreements with the South, which would "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 have said they will continue with their planned campaign this week despite the 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 U.S.-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.
On Saturday, Kim Yo Jong, who serves as a senior official of the ruling Workers' Party and is Kim's sister, said she ordered the military to prepare for unspecified "next action".
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, South Korea's President Moon Jae-in urged Pyongyang to keep peace agreements reached by the two leaders and return to dialogue.