North Korea severs all ties with South

South Korea has launched psychological warfare over the sinking of its ship, while North Korea has said its troops are braced for war. The rising tension on the peninsula is worrying many. (May 25)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

SEOUL -- North Korea announced Tuesday that it is severing all relations with South Korea, heightening the risk of armed conflict and creating perhaps the most serious crisis on the Korean Peninsula in more than two decades.

The announcement, which followed the South's imposition of sanctions on the Pyongyang government for apparently sinking one of its warships, all but crushed the last remaining elements of the North-South "sunshine policy" that emerged in 2000, after the first-ever summit between the two Koreas. That meeting opened trade links between the two countries, enabled the South to send food aid to the North and for several years helped prop up the North's weak economy.

Tuesday's move also raised the question of what North Korean leader Kim Jong Il stands to gain from infuriating the outside world and triggering sanctions that seem certain to deepen the misery of his people.

Kim's government said it would cut communications with South Korea, close its waters and airspace to its neighbor and refuse any contact with it during the tenure of President Lee Myung-bak, a popular leader who has nearly three years left in office. It also said it would expel South Korean officials from the Kaesong Industrial Park, a joint North-South venture that is a major source of hard currency for Pyongyang. But on Wednesday morning, North Korea used a military hotline to approve the entry of South Korean workers into the Kaesong complex, according to the government in Seoul.

Because North Korea has the world's most secretive government, there is no definitive explanation for its apparently self-destructive actions. But there are revealing patterns in Kim's behavior and how it is sold to his isolated citizenry.

The North's internal propaganda machine uses Kim's defiance of the outside world to whip up nationalist fervor and to distract North Koreans from their increasingly grim circumstances.

"The Kim Jong Il regime has no source of mass support except public pride in military strength," said B.R. Myers, director of the international studies department at Dongseo University in Pusan, South Korea. "Acts of aggression are built into the North Korean system."

In the most recent act comparable to the sinking of the Cheonan, North Korean agents planted bombs in 1987 on a South Korean passenger jet. It exploded in flight, killing all 115 people on board.

But Michael J. Green, a top adviser on Korea in the George W. Bush White House, said there is an important difference between the bombing of the plane and the sinking of the warship. He noted that now the North is mired in "the brittleness and desperation" of an internal succession process that is expected to shift power from Kim, who is 68 and ailing, to his third son, Kim Jong Eun, who is untested and 27 years old. Green also cited the "the danger that Pyongyang may now think it can use force with impunity backed by a nuclear deterrent."

In close cooperation with the Obama administration, South Korea announced measures against Pyongyang on Monday. They include a ban on all North Korean imports and exports, and the closure of South Korean waters to ships from the North -- but do not apply to Kaesong.

The United States and South Korea are also planning joint anti-submarine military exercises off the South Korean coast where the 1,200-ton Cheonan sank March 26, killing 46 sailors. Last week, Lee's government released the findings of an international investigation that blamed North Korea for firing a torpedo that sank the warship.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday that the administration is looking "at a range of options" for action against the North, including unilateral economic sanctions. He said it is also reviewing whether to reinstate North Korea on the list of state sponsors of terrorism -- the Bush administration removed it in 2008 -- but he indicated that was not likely.

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