What happens now?
North Korea's edgy game of war talk continued at ever higher volumes today with the announcement that it will cut off the last military hot line with South Korea.
“Under the situation where a war may break out any moment, there is no need to keep North-South military communications,” said the regime, according to the Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang.
The severed line of communication comes as the North, under young and new President Kim Jong-un, has said it is moving into its highest military alert status and has threatened to target Hawaii and Guam with rockets, after last month conducting its third nuclear test.
The escalating rhetoric has brought a new agreement between US and South Korean officials that would dictate military action should the North cross the border, shell islands, or harm shipping in the kind of low-level actions Pyongyang has attempted in recent years.
US military officials called the North Korean statement “bellicose.” Many have expressed doubt that North Korea’s rockets have the range to reach US bases in Guam and Hawaii, but a few, including the editor of Jane’s Defense Weekly, estimated they could reach US military bases in Japan, according to USA Today.
Yesterday the small, poor state that is anchored by devotion to the Kim family dynasty, and is now nearly entirely dependent on China for basic sustenance but has also devoted considerable resources to its military, repeated a longstanding threat to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,” among other similarly colorful threats.
Earlier this year, the North said it would no longer answer a hot line at the Demilitarized Zone. The hot line that the country is now threatening to shut down linked the two Koreas at the Kaesong industrial park, created in the North during the warming winds of unification in the 2000s. The economic complex has long been a symbol of the potential for North-South cooperation.
The New York Times today notes the North’s threat on the hot line follows comments from Park Geun-hye, the newly elected president of South Korea, that North Korea needed to end its nuclear threats in order to gain better traction with the South:
“If North Korea provokes or does things that harm peace, we must make sure that it gets nothing but will pay the price, while if it keeps its promises, the South should do the same,” she said during a briefing from her government’s top diplomats and North Korea policy-makers. “Without rushing and in the same way we would lay one brick after another, we must develop South-North relations step by step, based on trust, and create sustainable peace.”
Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, a veteran Korea-watcher once based in Seoul, tells The Christian Science Monitor that Pyongyang's main grievance appears to be recent United Nations sanctions targeted at the North.
Mr. Snyder argues that the meaning of the North’s sudden blustery behavior will only become clearer “once the question of the consolidation of [Kim Jong-un’s] power becomes clearer.”
Agence France-Presse today said that a significant meeting among party elites and power brokers in the closed world of Pyongyang is about to take place.
"They will discuss how to handle the nuclear issue, inter-Korean relations and North Korea's longstanding demand for a peace treaty with the United States," Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul told AFP.
Comparisons between the new Kim and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the patriarch of North Korea, are flowing freely, since there is a resemblance between the two. But Snyder notes that too little is yet known of the young Kim, who took over from his father Kim Jong-il last year, and that his youth is not necessarily a plus in such a high-stakes game.
“Right now the song is the same, but the volume is a lot louder. We don’t know his risk tolerance yet … does he understand the game he is playing?”
The US-South Korea military agreement follows a recent scrapping by the North of the historic legal armistice that effectively ended the Korean war in the 1950s. It came on the anniversary of the infamous sinking of the Choenan Navy vessel in 2010, which resulted in the deaths of 46 South Korean sailors, something that has had powerful emotional resonance in the South. (The Choenan was raised from the ocean floor, and forensics by the South claim the vessel was torpedoed by the North, something the North denies.)
USA Today quotes an Asia-watcher who feels the key to dealing with Pyongyang runs through Beijing:
US diplomats should talk to their Chinese counterparts and say, "Your ally North Korea is acting in a very belligerent and destabilizing way," said [Richard] Bush, who heads the Brookings Institution Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies. "They're acting in ways that are contrary to the principles you [China] have laid out. The situation is somewhat dangerous. You need to restrain your ally."