North Korea announced Tuesday that it is severing all relations with South Korea as tensions soared on the Korean Peninsula. The announcement was a tit-for-tat response to Seoul’s imposition of sanctions on the North for sinking one of its warships.
North Korea said it will cut all communications with South Korea and would not resume any contact during the tenure of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. Lee announced tough trade measures against Pyongyang on Monday, including a ban on all imports and exports with the North and the closure of the South Korean waters to ships from the North.
Last week, his government released the findings of an international investigation that blamed North Korea for firing a torpedo that sank Seoul’s warship March 26, killing 46 sailors. The North flatly denies involvement in the sinking of the Cheonan, one of the South’s worst military disasters since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, and has warned that retaliation would mean war. It has threatened to destroy any propaganda facilities installed at the heavily militarized border. North Korea said that it puts “all the responsibility” for the sinking of the Cheonan on the Seoul government.
A team of international investigators, however, concluded last week that a torpedo from the North Korean submarine tore apart the Cheonan. North Korea is already subject to various UN-backed sanctions following earlier nuclear and missile tests, and the steps announced by Seoul were seen as among the strongest it could take short of military action.
North Korea said Tuesday that it would forbid South Korean ships and aircraft from passing through its sea and airspace. It also said that South Korean government officials would be expelled from the Kaesong industrial park, a North-South venture near the border between the two Koreas that has been a major source of hard-currency earnings for the impoverished government of Kim Jong Il. It was not immediately clear from the announcement, which was carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, what would happen to the South Korean companies, which employ about 40,000 North Koreans in the industrial park.
“The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea… formally declares that from now on it will put into force the resolute measures to totally freeze the inter-Korean relations, totally abrogate the agreement on non-aggression between the north and the south and completely halt the inter-Korean cooperation,” the North’s KCNA news agency reported. (Reuters)
As part of the freeze, the statement said North Korea would close a 39-year-old Red Cross liaison office at the Panmunjom border village and begin “a full-force counter-attack against the puppet regime’s psychological warfare against North Korea.” (Washington Post)
Earlier, the Seoul-based North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity said Tuesday that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il ordered its 1.2 million-member military to get ready for combat. The group, citing unidentified sources in North Korea, said the order was read by Gen. O Kuk Ryol, a Kim, confidant, and broadcast on speakers installed in each house and at major public sites throughout the country last Thursday, hours after the multinational report blaming North Korea for the sinking was issued in Seoul. The South Korean military said they had no indication of unusual activity by North Korea’s military. On Tuesday, the presidential Blue House said officials were reviewing whether South Korea should resume calling North Korea its “main enemy” in formal defence documents for the first time in six years. In downtown Seoul, about 30 conservative activists burned North Korean flags and ripped up photos of Kim Jong Il.
Also on Tuesday, North Korea state media cited the power National Defence Commission as saying the North’s soldiers and reservists were bracing to launch a “sacred war” against South Korea. North Korea often issues fiery rhetoric and regularly vows to wage war against South Korea and the U.S. It put its army on high alert following a November sea battle with South Korea near where the Cheonan went down in March. The Koreas also fought bloody maritime skirmishes in the disputed area in 1999 and 2002.
South Korea announced Monday that it would resume psychological warfare broadcasts to the North, including radio broadcasts, the use of loudspeakers along the border and the installation of large electronic billboards that flash messages across the border such as “Come to the South.”
The U.S. has thrown its full support behind South Korea’s moves and they are planning two major military exercises off the Korean peninsula, where the Cheonan sank, in a display of force intended to deter future aggression by North Korea, the White House said. The U.S. has 28,500 troops in South Korea.
South Korea also wants to bring North Korea before the UN Security Council over the sinking. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Monday he expects the council to take action against North Korea, but China – North Korea’s main ally and a veto-wielding council member – has so far done little but urge calm on all sides.
In Beijing, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she had “very productive and very detailed” discussions with Chinese officials but could not say if any progress has been made in convincing the Chinese to back U.N. action. “No one is more concerned about peace and stability in this region as the Chinese,” she told reporters. “We know this is a shared responsibility, and in the days ahead we will work with the international community and our Chinese colleagues to fashion an effective, appropriate response.” (The Globe & Mail) Clinton said both sides should examine the issue over time, suggesting quick Security Council action was unlikely. “(China) shares with us the goal of a denuclearised Korean Peninsula and a period of careful consideration in order to determine the best way forward in dealing with North Korea.” (Reuters)
China, the North’s only major ally and which effectively bankrolls its economy, has studiously tried to keep out of the fray, urging calm and refusing to voice support for the international report on the Cheonan sinking. It means that South Korea has almost no chance of winning further U.N. sanctions against its neighbour.
Chinese State Counselor Dai Bingguo, speaking at a news conference with Ms. Clinton, called for “relevant parties” to “calmly and properly handle the issue and avoid escalation of tension.” (The G & M)
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev talked with Mr. Lee on Tuesday and said he “understands well” about South Korea’s moves and will try to give an “appropriate signal” to North Korea over the sinking, according to Mr. Lee’s office. (The G & M) Russia, which like China and the United States holds a veto in the Security Council, urged restraint.
The issue is certain to dominate talks in Seoul on Wednesday with Clinton, who was arriving after talks in Beijing. Most analysts doubt either side would risk a war, which would be suicidal for the North and economy-ruining for the South. Seoul’s key economic and financial authorities will meet early on Wednesday to discuss ways to stabilize local financial markets. Some in the market saw the selling – which took stocks on the main index to their lowest close in 15 weeks – as overdone and triggered mostly by foreign selling. “North Korea and related risks have always ben there. It is like telling investors to quit the Japanese market because it has earthquakes. War is wanted neither by the North nor the South,” one fund manager at a foreign investment management house said. (Reuters)
Both sides have stepped up their rhetoric over the Cheonan incident. The North accused South Korea’s government of fabricating the issue, partly to help the ruling in next week’s local elections – important to cement President Lee’s power in the second half of his single five-year term. The incident appears to have done nothing to dent Lee’s popularity, which one recent opinion poll shows running at well over 40 percent, unusually high for recent South Korean presidents halfway through their term. A strong showing for Lee’s party in the June 2 local election, which many expect, will give him greater authority to push aside a fragmented opposition in parliament and continue with sweeping pro-business reforms. His rule has also seen relations with the North turn increasingly chilly as he turned his back on a decade of generous aid to the North by his predecessors, which had failed to end its attempts to build nuclear weapons.
“In the past 10 years, we have failed to establish the concept of principal enemy,” Mr. Lee told a meeting of senior advisors for his government on Tuesday, referring to the Sunshine Policy of cultivating reconciliation with the North by his two liberal predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. “We have ignored the very danger under our feet.” (New York Times)
Some worry pushing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il too far may leave him little choice but to fight back to try to save his family’s more than 60-year hold over the destitute country as he tries to secure the succession for his youngest son.
Analysts say the main risk is that small skirmishes along the heavily armed border could turn into boarder conflict.