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North Korea did not pick up the phone when South Korea called on Tuesday, confirming that the hermit kingdom has followed through on its threat to cut all ties with its closest neighbor — including a direct hotline between the leaders of the two countries.
North Korean state media announced Tuesday that it would be severing all ties with the South, including a number of military and diplomatic hotlines, and another one that directly connected the North’s leader Kim Jong Un with his counterpart in the south, President Moon Jae In, on a moment's notice.
In recent months, North Korean defectors and South Korean activists have sent tens of thousands of leaflets into North Korea. The leaflets, which were attached to helium balloons, denounced Kim Jong Un’s leadership and urged the country's citizens to defect.
The North says such acts are in defiance of peace agreements the two sides signed during a series of high-profile summits in the summer of 2018.
"The disgusting riff-raff have committed hostile acts against the DPRK by taking advantage of the South Korean authorities' irresponsible stance and with their connivance. They dared to hurt the dignity of our supreme leadership," the Korean Central News Agency said.
Hours after the decision was announced, officials at the unification and defense ministries said phone calls made on liaison and military hotlines went unanswered. But the phone lines don’t appear to have been cut entirely, as the officials said there was a ringing tone.
The incident marks the first time the North has failed to answer a call on the hotlines since they were restored during a wave of optimism in 2018 when Kim and Moon held a series of high-profile summits.
“We have reached a conclusion that there is no need to sit face to face with the South Korean authorities, and there is no issue to discuss with them,” a report in the state-run Rodong Sinmun said.
Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the Supreme Leader, who has become one of the most important figures inside the ruling Workers Party in recent years, was one of the two signatories on the policy to cut ties with the South, according to state media reports.
Kim Yo Jong, whom North Korea experts recently suggested could replace her brother when speculation was mounting about his ill health, threatened last week to cut off all ties with Seoul if it didn’t stop activists from spreading leaflets.
Her responsibility for shaping policy on the relationship with the South means she will continue to hold a pivotal role inside the government and will only heighten speculation that she is being groomed to replace her brother.
After years of appearing to portray a more open stance to international relations, North Korea has been slowly reverting to type, first by withdrawing from nuclear negotiations with the U.S. and now by cutting off ties with Seoul.
In recent months, it has closed all land borders due to the coronavirus crisis. Pyongyang still claims it has zero cases of coronavirus, but public health experts have cast doubt on that claim, citing the country’s close trade links to China.
On Tuesday, the U.N. warned that the five-month closure of the border with China has exacerbated food shortages in the country.
There are “widespread food shortages and malnutrition” in North Korea, the U.N.’s special rapporteur to the country, Tomas Ojea Quintana, warned, urging the U.N. Security Council to “reconsider sanctions” on the isolated country so as to ensure the flow of food supplies.
“There have been reports of an increase 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.
Cover: A mass protest is staged in Pyongyang on June 6, 2020, as demonstrators condemn South Korea for failing to prevent activists from sending anti-North Korean leaflets across the border. (Kyodo via AP Images)