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Kaesong Industrial Complex is shrouded by smoke in this picture taken from the south side in Paju, South Korea, June 16, 2020. Yonhap via REUTERS

North Korea blew up an office set up to foster better ties with South Korea in its border town of Kaesong on Tuesday after it threatened to take action if North Korean defectors went ahead with a campaign to send propaganda leaflets into the North.

North Korea’s KCNA state news agency said the liaison office, which had been closed since January over fears of the novel coronavirus, was “tragically ruined with a terrific explosion”.

Black-and-white surveillance video released by South Korea’s Ministry of Defence showed a large explosion that appeared to bring down the four-storey structure. The blast also appeared to cause a partial collapse of a neighbouring 15-storey high-rise that had served as a residential facility for South Korean officials who staffed the liaison office.

The office, when it was operating, effectively served as an embassy for the old rivals and its destruction represents a major setback to efforts by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to coax the North into cooperation.

Tension has been rising over recent days with North Korea threatening to cut ties with South Korea and retaliate over the propaganda leaflets, which carry messages critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including on human rights.

KCNA said the office was blown up to force “human scum and those, who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes”. North Korea refers to defectors as “human scum”.

A South Korean military source told Reuters that there had been signs North Korea was going ahead with the demolition earlier in the day, and South Korean military officials watched live surveillance imagery as the building was blown up.

The first diplomatic mission of its kind, 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 building had been originally used as offices for managing operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint venture between the two Koreas that was suspended in 2016 amid disagreement over the North’s nuclear and missile programmes.

South Korea spent at least 9.78 billion won (US$8.6 million) in 2018 to renovate the building, which stood as a gleaming blue glass structure in the otherwise drab industrial city.

When it was operating, South Koreans worked on the second floor and North Koreans on the fourth floor. The third floor held conference rooms for meetings between the two sides.

When the office was closed in January, South Korea said it had 58 personnel stationed there.

South Korea’s won weakened by about 0.7% against the dollar in offshore non-deliverable forward trade as reports emerged of the building being blown up after onshore spot trade finished.

Source: Reuters, June 16, 2020