Korean Hotlines Cut-Off Shows North's Growing Dismay, Yet Unlikely To Pose Serious Risks


Korean Hotlines Cut-Off Shows North's Growing Dismay, Yet Unlikely to Pose Serious Risks

North Korea's decision to suspend communication links with South Korea indicates its growing discontent with the neighbor, but the move is not critical and its security risks are limited, experts have told Sputnik

MOSCOW (UrduPoint News / Sputnik - 10th June, 2020) North Korea's decision to suspend communication links with South Korea indicates its growing discontent with the neighbor, but the move is not critical and its security risks are limited, experts have told Sputnik.

North Korea announced on Tuesday that it would cut all communication lines, including military hotlines, with South Korea, saying it had nothing more to discuss with Seoul. Pyongyang also left unanswered a regular liaison phone call from the South for the first time since the two nations established a joint liaison office after their historic summit in September 2018.

The move comes as the North Korean leadership, long dismayed by the South's inability to stop a North Korean defectors' campaign of sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border by balloons, decided at a Central Committee meeting on Monday to start treating Seoul as an "enemy."

The South Korean Unification Ministry said on Wednesday it would complain to police about two defector groups behind the leaflet campaigns. Still, North Korea's move indicates what many see as a dramatic U-turn from the positive rhetoric that followed the 2018 summit between Korean leaders in Panmunjom.


According to Dr. Sangsoo Lee, a senior research fellow of the Institute for Security and Development Policy and head of the Stockholm Korea Center, Pyongyang has significantly recalibrated its strategy towards the United States and South Korea after its leader Kim Jong Un's summit with US President Donald Trump in Hanoi had been cut short with no deal.

"[It] seems that Pyongyang is gearing up to lay the groundwork for escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, while blaming South Korea's hostile acts. By rising the military tensions with provocations, brinkmanship tactics can be used for North Korea again to raise its leverage over the U.S. and South Korea," Lee told Sputnik.

Yet, a leafleting campaign by South Korea could be the true reason behind Pyongyang's decision to cut communication lines with Seoul, Robert Winstanley-Chesters, a North Korea expert and lecturer at the University of Leeds and Birkbeck, University of London, told Sputnik.

"North Korea has always hated these balloons and felt it was a huge violation of their sovereignty and an interference by South Korea into its internal affairs. There are many occasions in the past when North Korea has complained about these balloons and taken counter measures," Winstanley-Chesters said.

According to the expert, agreements achieved at the 2018 Panmunjom summit provided for the suspension of all hostile acts by the Koreas against one another. At the same time, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that balloon leaflets, though considered acts of free speech, could be prevented by the government, as they could be viewed by the North as hostile acts and therefore put South Korea's national security at risk.

"So North Korea in this case is simply asking the government in Seoul to act on an agreement they have made together and that is important to both sides," the researcher stressed.

Winstanley-Chesters went on to underline that the move, though indicating the North's discontent with the defectors' balloon propaganda, was not critical.

"This is a significant move in the sense that it demonstrates a discomfort on the part of Pyongyang when it comes to potential future directions with Seoul, but it is not a hugely significant move. North Korea has regularly cut or turned off such lines of communication to express its displeasure at something but has just as regularly turned them back on again," the analyst said.

There are over 40 telephone lines between Seoul and Pyongyang. North Korea has unilaterally suspended communication lines with South Korea multiple times � in 1976, 1980, 1996, 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2016. The previous hiatus in communication lasted for two years and ended amid a thaw in bilateral relations between the neighboring nations that culminated in the Panmunjom summit.

"It does not constitute a huge security risk, because both Koreas are well-aware of each other's movements anyway, and take care generally to forewarn the other," Winstanley-Chesters said.

Lee, in turn, noted that cutting off all inter-Korean communications lines involved a risk of there being a spike in military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

"However, Pyongyang also knows that going too far would likely see the United States increase pressure, such as additional sanctions and military measures, as well as China's reaction, possibly reducing its aid and support. With this in mind, North Korea will perhaps demonstrate its strategic weapons, targeting South Korea," the researcher said.


The announcement of the hotline cutoff was preceded by a stark warning by Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un's sister and deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers' Party of Korea, that Pyongyang may scrap inter-Korean agreements. This comes weeks after Kim Yo Jong was rumored to be poised to take over the North Korean leadership amid her brother's alleged illness.

"Kim Yo Jong is now handling inter-Korean issues as a second powerful person in North Korea. She seems to be leading North Korea's external strategy by demonstrating a tough leadership which [she] will need for when she succeeds to her brother's position," Lee said.

Winstanley-Chesters similarly pointed to her growing influence in North Korean politics.

"This is a further sign of the importance of Kim Yo Jong in the political hierarchy of North Korea, and a further sign of her developing authority � it is highly unusual for figures who are not Kim Jong Un to give warnings like this in their own name in North Korean media," the expert said.

He noted that Kim Yo Jong has also been pictured centrally in photos of a recent Central Committee meeting "demonstrating her focus on political matters."