North Korea has blown up its liaison office with the South in a dramatic escalation of tensions between the old rivals.
A loud explosion was followed by a plume of smoke as the four-storey building in the North Korean city of Kaesong was demolished, according to witnesses across the border in the South.
There are fears military clashes could erupt along the heavily fortified and guarded demilitarised zone (DMZ) that divides the neighbours.
Kim Jong-un’s regime warned its soldiers are ready to enter the DMZ to punish Seoul after defector groups in the “enemy” South sent anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets into the North via balloons.
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South Korea’s unification ministry confirmed the de facto embassy was blown up and destroyed by the North on at about 2.50pm local time on Tuesday.
Seoul said its military has tightened surveillance and readiness for possible accidental clashes near the border.
A South Korean military source told Reuters that there were signs of the impending demolition earlier in the day, and South Korean military officials watched live surveillance imagery of the building as it was blown up.
Afterwards, China called for peace and stability on the peninsula.
North Korea has made several threats against South Korea in recent days, warning of military action and vowing to destroy the “useless” office set up amid warmer relations in April 2018, treat Seoul as an “enemy” and cut off official lines of communication.
The General Staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) said it has been studying an “action plan” to reenter zones that had been demilitarised under a 2018 inter-Korean pact and “turn the front line into a fortress.”
“Our army will rapidly and thoroughly implement any decisions and orders of the Party and government,” the KPA said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.
Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, had warned on Saturday: “Before long, a tragic scene of the useless North-South joint liaison office completely collapsed would be seen.”
The de-facto embassy, in a now-closed industrial area just inside the North Korean side of the border, opened as the neighbours set up a permanent channel of communication as part of efforts to end a decades-old rivalry.
Split since the end of the Second World War, the Koreas previously communicated by special telephone lines and fax.
When the building opened, Seoul said it would allow the countries to “directly discuss issues 24 hours, 365 days”, and meetings would take place on a weekly basis.
It was staffed by up to 20 people from each side, with the South Koreans occupying the second floor and the North Koreans on the fourth floor.
The first face-to-face meeting there took place in October 2018 and was followed by further talks as relations improved between the Korea and the North and the US.
Tensions have risen as Pyongyang threatened to sever inter-Korean ties and take retaliatory measures over the leaflets, which carry messages critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un including human rights abuses.
Seoul’s defence ministry called for Pyongyang to abide by the 2018 agreement, in which both sides’ militaries vowed to cease “all hostile acts” and dismantled a number of structures along the heavily fortified DMZ between the two countries.
“We’re taking the situation seriously,” ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo told a briefing. “Our military is maintaining readiness posture to be able to respond to any situation.”
Several defector-led groups have regularly sent back flyers, together with food, $1 bills, mini radios and USB sticks containing South Korean dramas and news, usually by balloon over the border or in bottles by river.
On Saturday, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim who serves as a senior official of the ruling Workers’ Party, said she ordered the military to prepare for unspecified “next action”.
South Korea plans legal action against two of the defector groups, saying their actions fuel cross-border tensions, pose risks to residents living near the border and cause environmental damage.
But the groups say they intend to push ahead with their planned campaign this week.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in urged Pyongyang on Monday to keep peace agreements reached by the two leaders and return to dialogue.
China’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday that Beijing hopes for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian made the remarks during a daily briefing in Beijing.
In May, defectors flew balloons over North Korea with propaganda leaflets, cash, USB drives and SD cards amid reports claiming Kim Jong-un was dead, critically ill or in hiding during a coronavirus outbreak.
Kim later resurfaced after an absence of three weeks.
Members of a group called Fighters for a Free North Korea released 20 balloons carrying 500,000 leaflets announcing that two high-profile defectors had won seats in South Korea’s parliament.
The balloons were released in Incheon, close to the border, in the hope that the contents would reach villagers in the North and the messages will spread through the secretive and isolated country.
Fighters for a Free North Korea is an NGO run by North Koreans who managed to escape the oppressive regime.