North Korea has shut off all lines of communication with “enemy” South Korea – a likely signal that Pyongyang is adopting a more confrontational stance towards Seoul after more than two years of detente and failed peace talks.
North Korean state media said several hotlines would be shuttered, including a military-to-military phone and another line meant to directly connect its leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a moment’s notice. These lines were considered important because they could help prevent an accidental military confrontation caused by misinterpreting or miscalculating the other side’s action or intention.
Choi Hyun-soo, a spokesman for the South Korean Defense Ministry, said North Korea didn’t answer phone calls on a military line Tuesday morning for the first time since it was set up in 2018. A call to the joint liaison office hotline, which North Korea said it shuttered Friday, also went unanswered.
“Inter-Korean communication lines must be maintained according to the agreement because it is the fundamental means of communication,” the Unification Ministry, South Korea’s government body that deals with all things North Korea, said in a statement.
“The government will continue to work towards peace and prosperity of Korean Peninsula while adhering to the inter-Korean agreement.”
Pyongyang said it is giving Seoul the cold shoulder because North Korean defectors in South Korea flew balloons into their former home carrying leaflets and SD cards, presumably with information about the outside world. It’s illegal for average North Koreans to consume information that is not approved by the country’s powerful propaganda machine, and doing so can carry dire consequences.
Experts believe it’s possible the Kim regime is using the leaflets issue to manufacture a crisis – a tactic in North Korea’s international relations playbook that’s often used to create a sense of urgency in fledgeling talks.
Pyongyang claimed the balloons, which were sent by a private group, violated the agreement reached at the April 2018 summit, in which both sides agreed to cease “all hostile acts and eliminating their means, including broadcasting through loudspeakers and distribution of leaflets” along their shared border. Several of the communication lines that were shuttered Tuesday were set up or reestablished as part of the same agreement.
“We will never barter the dignity of our supreme leadership for anything, but defend it at the cost of our lives,” said the statement published Tuesday in North Korea’s state-run news outlet KCNA. “There is no need to sit face to face with the south Korean authorities and there is no issue to discuss with them, as they have only aroused our dismay.”
The statement also said Tuesday’s move was the “first step of the determination to completely shut down all contact means with south Korea and get rid of unnecessary things.”
Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister and one of the most powerful officials in the country, appears to have played a major role in North Korea’s decision to cut off communication with the South.
She and Kim Yong Chol, who served as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s counterpart in talks with the United States, were both mentioned by name in the Tuesday announcement. KCNA also carried a piece by Kim Yo Jong on Friday referring to the defectors as “mongrel dogs” and threatening South Korea, suggesting “it is time to bring their owners to account.”
Fighters for a Free North Korea, the non-governmental organization that claimed to send the balloons, said it sent 500,000 leaflets, 2,000 $1 bills and 1,000 SD cards over the border. The group did not say what was on the memory cards, but in the past they have contained South Korean and Western movies and television shows.
The group posted an image to its website showing several balloons, including one carrying a poster emblazoned with caricature of Kim Jong Un and the words: “While the people starve, what good is the nuclear rocket, chemical biological weapons, and political prisoner camps? Let’s end the hereditary dictatorship of Kim Jong Un!”
The head of the Fighters for a Free North Korea group, Park Sang-hak, is a well-known defector. In 2012, North Korean agents attempted to assassinate him with a poisonous needle shaped like a pen.
A political ploy
The Kim family is treated with almost deity-like reverence in North Korean state media, and insulting any of them can carry harsh punishment. But the decision to ramp up hostilities could be a political ploy meant to jump-start inter-Korean talks, which have been essentially stuck in neutral for months.
“Inter-Korean communications have essentially been dead and dysfunctional anyway, but Pyongyang is trying to make cutting off lines a far bigger deal than it really is,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group specializing in northeast Asian affairs and nuclear policy.
The first inter-Korean hotline was established in 1971, according to Unification Ministry. Since then North Korea had severed inter-Korean communication at least five times.
“This situation is not ideal, but the two Koreas are accustomed to periods of severed dialogue channels,” Duyeon Kim said.
Talks to achieve several of the major goals laid out at the April 2018 summit, including ending the Korean War and reestablishing inter-Korean economic projects, have so far failed to progress.
A key sticking point has been sanctions levied on North Korea by the United Nations Security Council and the United States. Pyongyang desperately needs hard currency, but sanctions bar the country from selling most things of value or engaging in profitable joint projects with the South.
Andrei Lankov, an expert in North Korean affairs at Kookmin University in Seoul, said Moon is unlikely to do anything that violates sanctions out of fear of alienating the United States, a treaty ally of South Korea, or President Donald Trump – who has made it clear he does not want to pay for longstanding alliances at the same price his predecessors have.
North Korea is now attempting to box South Korea into a corner while still keeping the United States at bay, in the hopes that a sense of urgency in Seoul will push the Moon to cooperate on Kim Jong Un’s terms.
The North Koreans “don’t want the Moon Jae-in government to feel comfortable. They want to create a measured crisis, a controlled crisis,” Lankov said. “North Korea needs a crisis in relations with South Korea, but of a type which will not directly draw in the United States.
The problem, however, is Moon’s riding a political high after doing better than expected in legislative elections earlier this year. And his constituents don’t particularly care about the cycle of escalation with North Korea – it’s something South Koreans have gotten used to. Cutting off communication will likely fail to register as a major issue in South Korea, where the economy and the novel coronavirus pandemic are the most pressing concerns of the day.
Lankov said North Korea’s efforts to create a sense of crisis in South Korea have been “remarkably unsuccessful.”
“However, it’s not necessarily a good sign,” he said. “A lack of response likely means North Korea starts increasing the volume, increasing the intensity of provocation.”
CNN’s Sophie Jeong and Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report