North Korea announced Tuesday it was axing all communications with South Korea, a move analysts believe could be an attempt to manufacture a crisis and force concessions from its neighbor.
The decision carried further significance because it was attributed in part to Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has risen in prominence in recent weeks.
North Korea said it was suspending contact in anger at activist defectors who have fled to the South and routinely fly balloons back over the border carrying propaganda leaflets.
Many experts suspect the underlying reason is an attempt to gain leverage in inter-Korean negotiations that have stalled since a series of high-profile summits in 2018.
During a meeting, Kim Yo Jong and another senior North Korean official, Kim Yong Chol, described South Korea as “the enemy.”
They said their neighbor had angered the North Korean people with its “treacherous and cunning behavior” and “driven the inter-Korean relations into a catastrophe,” according to North Korea’s state-run media.
Cutting off communication lines between the countries’ leaders and militaries was the first step before it “completely shut down all contact means with South Korea,” it said.
South Korea confirmed that Tuesday morning North Korea did not answer its military hotline for the first time since it was restored in 2018, according to a defense ministry spokeswoman.
“The communications line between South and North Korea … must be maintained as agreed,” an official from South Korea’s Unification Ministry said in a briefing.
Although Kim Yo Jong has been in the public eye for a while, representing her brother at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, she gained new prominence following several statements this year: condemning South Korea’s live-fire exercise in March and praising a letter from President Donald Trump to her brother.
When there were rumors that Kim Jong Un was in ill health, his sister was one of those touted as a potential successor.
“She appears to have long been trusted by her brother,” said John Nilsson-Wright, a senior research fellow at the London think tank Chatham House. “Having been put in charge of propaganda and publicity for the regime, she necessarily is an important figure in the power structure.”
Last week, she called the North Korean defectors who have fled to South Korea “human scum” and “mongrel dogs” for flying propaganda leaflets back across the border.
Communications lines between the Koreas have been cut and restored again during previous periods of tension. And some believe that North Korea is deploying a similar tactic now.
The country’s last summit with Trump broke down without an agreement, and subsequent negotiations have seen no progress toward North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons, as Washington says it hopes it will.
But the stalemate has also left North Korea no closer to ending the crippling Western sanctions that continue to throttle its economy. It has tried to pressure South Korea to take a softer line than the White House, but to no avail.
“Can North Korea continue to raise tensions to get the concessions it wants any time soon?” tweeted Ramon Pacheco Pardo, an associate professor at King’s College London.
South Korea “isn’t going to break the sanctions regime. Short and mid-range missile tests barely register these days. An ICBM test risks ending any hope of a deal with Trump,” he added, referring to an intercontinental ballistic missile. He said North Korea “isn’t in a good place.”