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North Korea Escalates Threat to Scrap US Truce


A giant North Korean flag flutters on the top of a tower in the propaganda village of Gijeongdong, North Korea, seen from South Korea, near the border village of Panmunjom, Feb. 15, 2013.

A giant North Korean flag flutters on the top of a tower in the propaganda village of Gijeongdong, North Korea, seen from South Korea, near the border village of Panmunjom, Feb. 15, 2013.

North Korea's latest threat to nullify a 1953 armistice agreement with the United States marks an escalation of its long-standing rhetoric against Washington.

Pyongyang has threatened before to scrap the armistice that ended the Korean War, but Tuesday's warning broadcast on North Korean state television appeared to be more significant, both in detail and the way it was presented.

In the broadcast, Korean People's Army spokesman Kim Yong Chol read a statement criticizing the United States and South Korea for starting a two-month series of military exercises.

The North Korean officer said the drills, which began March 1 and run to the end of April, are "blatant acts of military provocation." He said the KPA Supreme Command will respond to the exercises with what he called a series of "even more powerful and real countermeasures."

The officer said Pyongyang also will "completely nullify" the 1953 armistice beginning March 11, and cut off a truce hotline to U.S. and South Korean forces at the border village of Panmunjom.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry responded by saying North Korean leader Kim Jong Un should promote peace and engage in negotiations rather than "abrogate" the truce.

VOA Seoul Correspondent Steve Herman said Pyongyang's warning appears to be more than just a rhetorical threat against its enemies.

"Usually such threats are not read out on television and broadcast on radio by a high-ranking general, as is the case that we have seen here," Herman said. "Now, this statement did go out in the Korean language initially, so this was certainly intended for a domestic audience primarily in North Korea."

North Korea issued the threat as the United States, South Korea and their allies made progress in seeking a new round of U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang for conducting a third nuclear test last month.

The United States said Tuesday it has persuaded North Korea's main ally, China, to back a draft U.N. Security Council resolution targeting "illicit" activities by North Korean diplomats and banks.

Herman said Pyongyang may use those diplomatic moves as another pretext to break the truce.

"Most analysts, most watchers are expecting that as a result of the further sanctions that the U.N. Security Council is now almost certain to enact sometime this week, as well as a [North Korean desire to respond] to the new administration coming in here in South Korea - and in the past when there has been a new administration in Seoul there has been some sort of [North Korean] test to get the attention of the South - that there will be some kind of provocation eventually," he said.

But Herman said North Korea's armistice statement does not necessarily require it to cancel the truce.

"This is a bit conditional," he added. "They are saying this is linked to annual joint exercises that are about to begin between the United States and South Korea, so some of the language could be read as, this would only take place if the exercises would go ahead."

U.S. and South Korean forces began an annual exercise named Foal Eagle on March 1st, but a separate computer-simulated drill called Key Resolve is not due to start until March 11. Both nations have said the exercises are defensive in nature.

North Korea largely has avoided following through on previous threats of retaliation for U.S.-South Korean drills, instead preferring to uphold the 1953 truce.

That document was signed by military commanders of the United States, North Korea and China, without South Korean participation. Its terms included establishing a demilitarized zone as a buffer between the opposing forces, arranging the repatriation of prisoners of war and establishing a Military Armistice Commission.

Herman said Pyongyang has a compelling reason to keep the truce in effect.

"That armistice was signed by Kim Il Sung. And for the Korean People's Army to then void something that was signed by the founder of North Korea, who is still the eternal leader, who is revered as almost a deity in North Korea, would be profound," Herman said. "So I think a lot of analysts are going to have a difficult time thinking that the KPA is going to take lightly nullifying the armistice agreement."

The risk of renewed conflict remains. The truce never was upgraded to a peace agreement, leaving the Korean peninsula in a technical state of war since 1950.

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