SEOUL • North Korea yesterday said it will sever hotlines with South Korea as the first step towards shutting down all contact with Seoul, state news agency KCNA reported.
For several days, Pyongyang has lashed out at Seoul, threatening to close an inter-Korean liaison office and other projects if the South does not stop defectors from sending leaflets and other material into the North.
Top officials in North Korea, including leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Ms Kim Yo Jong, and Mr Kim Yong Chol, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, have determined “that the work towards the South should thoroughly turn into the one against an enemy”, said KCNA.
As a first step, North Korea was due to close lines of communication at an inter-Korean liaison office, and hotlines between the two sides’ militaries and presidential offices, the report said.
North Korean officials did not answer a routine daily call to the liaison office yesterday morning or calls on military hotlines, a South Korean defence ministry spokesman told a briefing.
The routine calls between South and North Korea should be maintained as they are basic means of communication, said the South’s Unification Ministry, which is responsible for inter-Korean affairs.
The ministry said it will continue to follow the agreed principles and strive for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.
On Monday morning, North Korea did not answer the liaison phone call for the first time since 2018, though it answered an afternoon call.
The decision to cut communications marks a setback in relations amid efforts to try 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.
Shares of South Korea’s defence companies surged after North Korea announced it would sever the hotlines.
Analysts said the move is likely about more than the defectors, as North Korea is under increasing economic pressure as the corona-virus pandemic and international sanctions take their toll.
“North Korea is in a much more dire situation than we think,” said Professor Choo Jae-woo from Kyung Hee University. “I think they are trying to squeeze something out of the South.”
A United Nations human rights expert voiced alarm yesterday at what he called “widespread food shortages and malnutrition” in North Korea, made worse by a nearly five-month border closure with China and strict quarantine measures against Covid-19.
Mr Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name, urged the Security Council to “reconsider sanctions” that have been imposed on the isolated country so as to ensure food supplies.
He said the pandemic has brought “drastic economic hardship” to North Korea, noting a 90 per cent fall in trade with China in March and April that has led to lost incomes.
“There have been reports of a rise in the number of homeless people in large cities, including kotjebi (street children), and medicine prices have reportedly skyrocketed. An increasing number of families eat only twice a day or eat only corn and some are starving,” he said in a statement.