North Korea’s army announced on March 11 that the armistice that ended fighting on the Korean peninsula in 1953 is now invalid.
Although not unprecedented, the announcement reflects an unusually tough line by Pyongyang after the United Nations Security Council passed tightened sanctions in response to its February 12 nuclear test. As it usually does, Pyongyang blames current tensions on the United States.
“The United States has reduced the armistice to a dead paper,” reported North Korea’s Rodong Shinmun (Workers’ Newspaper), the news organ of the country’s Communist Party.
The announcement came from the army rather than from the government of Supreme Leader Kim Jung-un, who is also the Supreme Commander of the Korean Peoples Army (KPA). The July 27, 1953 cease-fire agreement was signed by the commanders of the three armies in the field — on one side, the United Nations Command (UNC), which represented 16 nations including the United States; and on the other side the Chinese Peoples Volunteers and the KPA. The Chinese ceased active participation in the armistice process when they withdrew their troops from North Korea in 1956. Armistice negotiations continue to take place in the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom, roughly on the border between north and south – typically, the KPA and UNC each provide a military negotiator of two-star rank, the UNC member being an American – and these negotiations will probably be stalled for now.
“Panmunjom has never accomplished much substantial,” retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Felix M. “Mike” Rogers told the Associated Press in 1975. Rogers is a World War II P-51 Mustang fighter ace and was the UNC armistice negotiator from 1970 to 1971. “At the same time, it has been effective in that we have talked. We rave at Panmunjom to let off steam.”
Ticking Time Bomb
The Korean peninsula has long been a potential tinderbox, with more than a million men under arms facing each other across the four-kilometer (2.5-mile) Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea, which was itself established by the 1953 armistice. Despite its name it is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Skirmishes and military and naval actions take place along or near the DMZ from time to time, including North Korea’s shelling of the South Korean island of Yonpyong-do and its sinking of a South Korean warship, both in 2010.
North Korea also cut off direct phone links with the UNC at Panmunjom as well as a hotline between Pyongyang and Seoul. The phone links are no longer working, a South Korean official told Agence France-Presse: “The North did not answer our call this morning.”
North Korean authorities have declared the armistice nullified six times previously – in 1976, 1994, 1996, 2003, 2006 and 2009 – but never before in a statement directly from the KPA and never in such strong language, with Rodong Shinmun saying the agreement was “blown apart” and at a “complete end.”
Bombs or Bombast?
The KPA’s announcement that the armistice becomes invalid could be a sign of greater willingness by Kim and his regime to take risks amidst an ongoing military confrontation that Rogers said “has the potential to be a ticking time bomb.” American officials say they take the announcement seriously. But it could also be less than it appears.
“It’s hyperbole,” said Andrew F. Antippas, who is a retired State Department expert on East Asia and a former infantryman in the Korean War. “It’s like them claiming they’re going to fire a missile at us, which they don’t have the means to do. They love to pull the chain of the western media.”
Pyongyang has thus far refrained from direct attacks on South Korea’s newly elected president, Park Geun-Hye. She is the daughter of Park Chung-Hee, the South Korean president who was the target of a North Korean commando raid on Seoul in 1968. And despite the strident language, routine operations continue at the North Korean-run Kaesong industrial complex where South Korean workers continue to come and go.
Asked about the KPA announcement, the Department of State referred Defense Media Network to a statement made by Gen. James D. Thurman, the UNC and Combined Forces Korea commander, after the recent nuclear test but before the announcement about the armistice:
“North Korea’s recent announcement of a nuclear test is a highly provocative act that threatens peace and security in the region and directly violates the United Nations Security Council resolutions,” said Thurman. “North Korea continues to isolate itself from the international community, and its nuclear and ballistic missile programs are a serious threat to international peace and stability. We remain vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and are fully committed to working closely with our Republic of Korea ally to maintain security on the peninsula.”