North Korea has announced that it will sever hotlines with South Korea as the first step towards shutting down all contact with Seoul, in retaliation for actions taken by defectors who have been sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.
State news agency KCNA made the announcement on Tuesday as Seoul also confirmed that Pyongyang had refused to receive calls from its liaison office after making the threat, Yonhap news agency reported quoting South Korea’s unification ministry.
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“The liaison office attempted to call North Korea this morning, but the North did not answer,” the unification ministry said on Tuesday.
Yonhap also quoted South Korea’s defence ministry as saying North Korea also did not answer calls via military hotlines.
For several days, North Korea has lashed out at South Korea, threatening to close an inter-Korean liaison office and other projects if South Korea did not stop defectors from sending leaflets and other material into North Korea.
Top government officials in North Korea, including leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, and Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, determined “that the work towards the South should thoroughly turn into the one against an enemy”, KCNA said.
As a first step, at noon on Tuesday (03:00 GMT), North Korea will close lines of communication at an inter-Korean liaison office, and hotlines between the two militaries and presidential offices, the report said.
On Monday morning, North Korea did not answer the liaison phone call for the first time since 2018, though it later answered an afternoon call.
The decision to cut communications marks a setback in relations amid efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for relief on tough international sanctions.
The two Koreas remain technically at war because the 1950-1953 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
South Korea has promised to take legislative action to ban activities of the defectors, but analysts said North Korea’s move is probably about more than the defectors with the country facing increasing economic pressure from the coronavirus crisis and international sanctions.
“North Korea is in a much more dire situation than we think,” Choo Jae-woo, a professor at Kyung Hee University, told Reuters News Agency.
“I think they are trying to squeeze something out of the South.”
Cutting communications is “a well-worn play for Pyongyang”, but one that can be dangerous, Daniel Wertz, of the US-based National Committee on North Korea, said on Twitter.
“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,” he said.
The people of North Korea have “been angered by the treacherous and cunning behaviour of the South Korean authorities, with whom we still have lots of accounts to settle”, KCNA said.
The report accused South Korean authorities of irresponsibly allowing defectors to hurt the dignity of North Korea’s supreme leadership.
“We have reached a conclusion that 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 state news agency reported.