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North Korea Issues Veiled Threat on US Election

Ambassador of the Permanent Mission of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to the United Nations Jang Il Hun, right, is joined by councilor Kwon Jong Gun as he speaks during a new conference, July 28, 2015, at the DPRK mission in New York.
Ambassador of the Permanent Mission of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to the United Nations Jang Il Hun, right, is joined by councilor Kwon Jong Gun as he speaks during a new conference, July 28, 2015, at the DPRK mission in New York.

North Korea is urging the United States to “keep its mouth shut” about worsening inter-Korean relations, saying such silence will be beneficial if the U.S. wants to hold a successful presidential election in November.

The statement published Thursday in the state-run Korean Central News Agency was issued by a relatively low-level official in North Korea’s foreign ministry. But the comment is still notable, since it appears to be a threat to influence or interfere in the U.S. vote.

North Korea has been unilaterally ramping up tensions with South Korea. This week, it said it will cut off all lines of official communication with the South. The U.S. State Department said it was “disappointed” in Pyongyang’s decision.

For North Korea, that comment amounted to interference in its internal affairs, according to Kwon Jong Gun, who heads the North Korean foreign ministry’s North America department.

“It would be good to keep your mouth shut,” Kwon added. “This will not only be in the United States’ interest, it will also be beneficial for a successful presidential election right in front of your nose.”

Before now, North Korea has not explicitly threatened to interfere in the U.S. election, set for November 3. But Pyongyang has signaled bigger provocations are ahead.

In January, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the world would soon witness a “new strategic weapon.” But since then, the North has only continued to periodically test less provocative, short-range weapons.

Trump, who has portrayed his outreach to Kim as a major foreign policy victory, has at times directly linked North Korea with his 2020 re-election chances, despite little if any evidence suggesting it will be a major issue for U.S. voters.

"(Kim) knows I have an election coming up. I don’t think he wants to interfere with that, but we’ll have to see,” Trump said in early December.

Empty threat?

It’s not clear how seriously North Korea’s latest comments should be taken. The North Korean foreign ministry is not seen as influential in the country’s decision-making process. And, it has a history of issuing threats that were not carried out.

In December, North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Ri Thae Song, threatened an ominous “Christmas gift” if the U.S. didn’t make greater concessions in stalled nuclear talks. The U.S. did not give any ground, and the North didn’t engage in any major provocations.

Inter-Korean tension

North Korea’s latest threat to the U.S. comes as it also generates a diplomatic crisis with South Korea.

This week, North Korea announced it would halt all communications channels with the South, which it referred to as its “enemy.”

As an apparent pretext for its decision, North Korea cited recent activities by South Korean activists who occasionally float anti-Pyongyang leaflets into the North.

Kim Yo Jong, the increasingly powerful sister of Kim Jong Un, called the activists, many of whom are North Korean defectors, “human scum.” North Korean state media have shown pictures of anti-defector rallies in North Korea.

It isn’t clear why North Korea chose this moment to express outrage about the launches, which have occurred for years.

Nonetheless, the move to cut off inter-Korean communication lines was a blow to the South Korean government, which desperately wants to improve ties with the North.

South Korea has aggressively but unsuccessfully attempted to placate North Korea’s concern about the leaflets.

The South Korean government has said it will legislate a ban on the launches. Local police have blocked groups from conducting launches on at least two occasions this month. On Wednesday, the Unification Ministry announced it will file a legal complaint against two groups that distribute the leaflets.

Rights groups and conservative activists have accused South Korean President Moon Jae-in of sacrificing democratic ideals, and letting North Korea dictate South Korean policy, in order to improve ties with the North.

Moon, who has two years left of a five-year presidential term, is making a final push to improve inter-Korean relations. But it is not clear how far he can go, since most inter-Korean projects are barred by international sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear program.

U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks have been stalled since February of last year, when Trump and Kim failed to reach an agreement at a summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.