North Korea on Tuesday “completely shut down all contact” with South Korea in a decision likely intended to deflect from domestic troubles and send a message to the United States, which remains embroiled in its own turmoil, experts say.
Pyongyang said Tuesday it would cut several key hotlines — including its direct line with the South Korean presidential Blue House — as part of a “first step” in what it described as “phased plans … to make the betrayers and riff-raff pay for their crimes,” according to the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency.
The report, which cited a meeting of top government officials such as leader Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, and Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, said the North was also severing lines of communication at an inter-Korean liaison office as well as hotlines between the two militaries.
Officials from the South attempted to call the lines in the morning and afternoon, but received no answer, the Yonhap news agency reported, with a Defense Ministry spokesperson noting that it was the first time since the 2018 restoration of the military lines that the North did not answer.
The move will be seen as a major setback for South Korea and President Moon Jae-in, who has invested much political capital in improving ties with the North, especially after his party and its allies trounced the opposition in April parliamentary elections, winning 180 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly.
The decision came just days after the North threatened to close an inter-Korean liaison office if the South failed to prevent defectors from sending leaflets across the border via balloons. Defectors and activists have in recent weeks used balloons, a common tactic deployed by anti-regime protesters, to send the leaflets lambasting Kim Jong Un over his nuclear arsenal and abysmal human rights record.
It’s unclear what severing communications with the South would garner for the North, though some observers said stoking tensions remains an often-deployed part of Pyongyang’s playbook.
“Regular communication channels are needed most during a crisis, and for that reason North Korea cuts them off to create an atmosphere of heightened risk,” Daniel Wertz, of the U.S.-based National Committee on North Korea, wrote on Twitter. “It’s a well-worn play for Pyongyang, but nonetheless a dangerous one.”
Ramping up tensions would also send a message to Washington — which may even be the intended target of the move — said Van Jackson, a lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington and former Pentagon official who worked on issues involving the two Koreas.
“I think this is mostly about the U.S., and maybe diversionary foreign policy to distract from their domestic economic troubles,” he said of the North’s announcement.
The North Korean economy remains hard-hit by suffocating U.N. and unilateral sanctions related to its nuclear weapons program. It is also widely believed to be grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, though the isolated country claims not to have had a single case.
But according to Jackson, the more likely scenario is that the North’s actions toward the South, including the move to cut off communications, “is an effort at signaling or pressuring, but it’s aimed at the United States rather than South Korea.”
Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea specialist at Troy University in Seoul, acknowledged that the real target of the move might be the U.S., but noted an inter-Korean angle, as well.
He said that Moon, with his freshly won strong majority in the National Assembly, is facing “high expectations for progress on inter-Korean relations.” Pyongyang, he said, would be looking to reap any possible concessions from the Moon administration by ratcheting up tensions.
Denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea have been stalled for months, the last attempt at bridging significant gaps in their stances having ended in acrimony last October.
Pyongyang has gradually ramped up its pressure on both Seoul and Washington in the ensuing months, issuing statements critical of both Seoul and Washington and conducting 11 missile tests, according to a database run by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California.
It has also vowed to continue building up its nuclear forces — including by unveiling “a new strategic weapon,” believed to be a new class of long-range missile, at an undetermined date.
Tuesday’s announcement could also be part of an integrated, longer-term strategy by the North for heaping pressure on its neighbor and the U.S., said Andrew O’Neil, an expert on the Koreas and a professor at Griffith University in Australia.
O’Neil cited the KCNA report’s specific mention of Kim Yong Chol, who is said to have been behind the deadly attacks on the South Korean Cheonan warship in 2010 and the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island later that year.
“So we could see some carefully escalated provocations in coming months,” O’Neil said.
Even before facing down both the pandemic and police brutality protests currently rippling through the U.S., President Donald Trump had remained mum on the North Korean nuclear issue after talks collapsed — despite his unprecedented three meetings with Kim Jong Un.
That silence has almost certainly angered Pyongyang. Observers say Trump, who hoped to campaign on his claimed successes with the nuclear-armed North, has largely ignored the issue in his re-election bid.
“Washington’s not picking up the phone and Trump … is showing no signs of reviewing the tough sanctions against North Korea,” said O’Neil, “So Kim may see muscling up to South Korea as the only way to get Washington’s attention in an election year.”
Ultimately, though, if such a strategy remains in place, any attempt to get Washington’s attention may simply be overtaken by events.
“The U.S. is dysfunctional and in chaos due to the domestic social and political situation, and the election cycle,” said Pinkston. “I don’t think the North Koreans are even that stupid to miss the obvious: The Trump administration has no capacity or bandwidth to deal with any serious and sustained foreign policy initiative now.”