North Korea Severs 'Hotline' Communication With The South After Sanctions

North Korean authorities cut off their "hotline" communication with South Korea on Monday as part of their announced withdrawal from the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953. The move came amid a flurry of bellicose North Korean threats, coinciding with the beginning today of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. The White House also vowed anew to protect U.S. forces and South Korean allies against any threats from the North. Analysts say it is among the most dangerous moments on the Korean peninsula in several years.

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This morning, officials in South Korea picked up the phone and called North Korea. It's a hotline set up to facilitate communication during a crisis. Each morning the line is tested, but this morning, no answer. North Korea says it has broken the agreement that ended the Korean War 60 years ago, and this follows a series of bellicose threats from the North.

Today, the White House warned North Korea it will be held accountable for any actions it takes. NPR's Tom Gjelten tells us more.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Last month, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon. In response, the United Nations imposed new sanctions that prompted the North Koreans to threaten a nuclear attack on Washington. And now, an official North Korean announcement that a 1953 armistice agreement is null and void. Joseph DeTrani, formerly the top North Korea expert in the U.S. intelligence community, says he's heard a lot of tough talk from North Korea, but he takes it seriously.

JOSEPH DETRANI: We tend to say, OK, they've said it before. This is rhetoric. Discount it. We should never discount North Korea. Never discount their ability to do things that we think are totally intolerable, bloody stupid.

GJELTEN: Three years ago, according to an international investigation, the North Koreans sank a South Korean ship. Eight months later, the North shelled a South Korean island, killing two soldiers and two civilians. At that time, the South Korean government chose not to retaliate.

This time, the situation appears more dangerous. The new threats come as North Korea's new leader, 28-year-old Kim Jong Un, asserts power. And in the South, another new government, one less likely to sit back and tolerate another attack. Marcus Noland is with the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

DR. MARCUS NOLAND: They're now committed to escalate, and I think it is a very dangerous situation for exactly that reason. There are new, untested governments on both halves of the Korean Peninsula.

GJELTEN: Joseph DeTrani imagines how escalation might begin with the South responding to some North Korean provocation.

DETRANI: An incursion or attack, they would respond in kind, shelling one of their islands, going after one of their vessels out there.

GJELTEN: And the North then responding in turn again. Bruce Bennett, a Korea expert at the RAND Corporation, says it's just the kind of escalation spiral the hotline was set up to deal with.

DR. BRUCE BENNETT: So cutting it now in the process of North Korea also making these very severe threats and looking like it's preparing to do other provocations, that's when it gets risky.

GJELTEN: U.S. troops in North Korea have not been put on heightened alert. But on the basis of his CIA experience, Joseph DeTrani says he's sure U.S. intelligence agencies are carefully watching and listening for any sign of North Korean military action and not just on the border with South Korea.

DETRANI: Going beyond the border area, going into Pyongyang, moving around some of the command and control facilities in Pyongyang and what kind of noise is out there. For my experience working with the intelligence community and the U.S. government, I think capabilities are up and running in there with our ROK allies, and we're monitoring, I would think, literally everything going on in the North.

GJELTEN: The repudiation of the armistice agreement and the cutting of the hotline today coincide with the first day of annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises. The threats from North Korea did not alter the exercise plans.

Speaking in New York today, President Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, said North Korea's bad behavior will not be rewarded. He said the United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state or stand by while it seeks to develop a nuclear missile that could reach the United States.

U.S. officials do not believe North Korea is suicidal. Marcus Noland points out that since 1953, there's been a military balance between North and South Korea.

NOLAND: Fundamentally, what has maintained stability on the Korean Peninsula for the last 60 years is not the armistice or hotlines. What's maintained stability is deterrence.

GJELTEN: And by deterrence, you mean the knowledge that North Korea has, that if it were to do something truly provocative, it would face a kind of reaction it doesn't want to face.

NOLAND: It would face overwhelming force from the United States and South Korea.

GJELTEN: The hope in Washington and in Seoul is that North Korea's leaders, no matter how tough they are determined to sound, in the end will behave rationally. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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