• Bloomberg, Reuters

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North Korea was not answering the phone at a liaison office with South Korea for the first time since it opened in 2018 after saying it was abolishing the project that once allowed the rivals to communicate around the clock.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Monday its phone calls were going unanswered to the North Korean delegation at the facility in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, ministry spokesman Yoh Sang-key told reporters.

“It is true that inter-Korean exchanges are at a standstill due to several factors including the COVID-19 outbreak, but we will continue to do what we can do to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula,” he said.

The facility was opened in the spirit of rapprochement advocated by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and was part of moves to reduce threats along the border, where the two countries have stationed about 1 million troops. It allowed for constant communication between the two sides for the first time since the start of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Last week, North Korea lashed into South Korea for allowing anti-Pyongyang leaflets to be sent across the border and said it was considering taking decisive measures to completely destroy contact spaces with its neighbor. This included abolishing the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong.

South Korea said last week it would look to ban anti-North Korea leaflets flying over the border by balloon after Kim Yo Jong, the sister of leader Kim Jong Un, rebuked Seoul for tolerating what North Korea state media quoted her as saying was a “sordid and wicked act of hostility.”

Millions of leaflets sent by South Korean activists and defectors from North Korea have flown across the border for more than a decade bearing messages critical of North Korean’s leaders, fueling friction between the rivals.

Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un was focused on domestic economic issues at a meeting of the politburo of the country’s ruling Workers Party, state media said Monday.

The two-day politburo meeting comes at a time of economic uncertainty amid the global COVID-19 pandemic that is putting additional pressure on the North’s economy, already battered by international sanctions aimed at stopping its nuclear program.

The meeting discussed “crucial issues arising in further developing the self-sufficient economy of the country and improving the standard of people’s living,” state news agency KCNA said.

Kim did not mention the North’s increased criticism of South Korea or of the North Korean defectors who call it home.

KCNA’s report on the 13th political bureau meeting focused on domestic economic issues, including the chemical industry and fertilizer production as “a major thrust front of the national economy.”

The meeting also emphasized construction of residential houses as a way to better North Korean’s standard of living.

Kim has made an unusually small number of outings in recent months, with his absence from a major holiday prompting speculation about his condition, as Pyongyang has stepped up measures against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although North Korea says it has no confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, South Korea’s main intelligence agency has said an outbreak there cannot be ruled out.

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