Tensions on the Korean Peninsula Monday reached their highest level since the November 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, with Pyongyang announcing it had scrapped the armistice that put an end to active fighting in the Korean War in 1953, as well as apparently shuting down a Red Cross communications hotline. The moves coincided with South Korea and the U.S. launching a large-scale military exercise.
The excessively strident rhetoric out of Pyongyang, which also included a threat to launch a nuclear strike against the U.S. and to cancel its nonaggression pact with the South, follows the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094 that imposed additional sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) for its third nuclear test on Feb. 12.
Pyongyang’s warnings occurred as nearly 10,000 U.S. soldiers, most from outside South Korea, alongside a larger number of South Korean ground, naval and air force personnel, participated in the annual “Foal Eagle” joint military exercise, which runs through April 30th. About 10,000 South Korean and 3,500 U.S. forces also launched the 11-day (mostly) computer-simulated “Key Resolve” exercise on March 11th.
“The U.S. has reduced the armistice agreement to a dead paper,” North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper wrote on March 11th, announcing the decision by the Supreme Command of North Korea’s army, CNN reported. “As the armistice agreement has been nullified, no one can expect what will happen next,” the state-run newspaper editorialized the same day in a bid to play on Seoul’s anxieties.
Making good on its threats, Pyongyang appeared to have suspended the Red Cross hotline with South Korea, an emergency link for quick, two-way communication used by the countries in the absence of official diplomatic channels. A South Korean official told reporters that a call at 9am went unanswered, adding that the hotline was usually tested twice every day. The hotline has been severed on five previous occasions since its inception in 1971, most recently in 2010. The North has also threatened to shut down its hotline with U.N. forces stationed in the South at Panmunjom, the so-called “truce village” along the border.
Although Seoul said it has not seen any signs of unusual activity by the North’s military, it confirmed continued large-scale exercises involving the Army, Navy and Air Force.
In a small glimmer of hope, operations continued yesterday at the Kaesong business park on the North’s side.
It remains to be seen whether Pyongyang’s decision to scrap the armistice is a prelude to rekindling armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula. For the time being, the North is going through the motions — such as Kim Jong-un’s inspections last week of troops stationed on islets in the Yellow Sea near Yeonpyeong — and signaling preparations for hostilities, though such measures, not unusual for the DPRK, may simply be Kim’s effort to show resolve and increase pressure on Seoul and Washington.
Given the presence of additional U.S. forces in the country for the Foal Eagle/Key Resolve exercises (mostly in addition to 28,500 already stationed there), the North will likely wait until after April 30th before taking any offensive actions — if any. But its decision to sever communications hotlines with the South, and possibly with U.N. forces, increases the likelihood of miscommunication and accidents, which can unintentionally lead to skirmishes, and thus puts the onus on U.S. and South Korean intelligence and self-restraint.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye told a Cabinet meeting on Monday that South Korean forces, which are still without a confirmed defense minister as Park consolidates her two-week-old administration, should be ready to respond strongly to any provocation by the DPRK.