By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, June 9 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's decision to cut off all inter-Korean communication lines appears aimed at voicing its pent-up frustration over South Korea's failure of advancing inter-Korean relations and also intended to strengthen its bargaining power in cross-border issues, experts said Tuesday.
The latest hard-line move is also seen as efforts to close ranks and rally domestic support behind the Kim Jong-un regime through "South Korea bashing" as Pyongyang must be facing a double whammy of growing its anemic economy under the strain of global sanctions and the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, they said.
Earlier in the day, North Korea announced it will cut off all inter-Korean communications lines at noon Tuesday, including the hotline between the North's ruling Workers' Party and the South's presidential office Cheong Wa Dae.
The move comes days after North Korea vowed to abolish an inter-Korean liaison office in the North's border town of Kaesong and completely shut down other major cross-border programs, denouncing leaflet-sending from South Korea as a hostile act breaching a series of peace agreements between the two sides.
The North stressed the decisions will be the first in a series of steps against South Korea and that the "work towards the South should thoroughly turn into the one against enemy."
"The latest move appears to be in line with North Korea's strong and long-held displeasure with the stalemated inter-Korean relations and intended to strengthen domestic unity through South Korea bashing and rally support behind the Kim Jong-un regime," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.
"The decision could have also reflected the growing fatigue brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and its current economic situations," he added. "For all of them, the North appears to have determined that it is necessary to do something to ramp up loyalty for the Kim Jong-un regime, and it used the leaflet issue as a chance to do that."
The North has been vehemently protesting propaganda leaflets since last week.
On Friday, the North's United Front Department handling inter-Korean affairs issued a statement, saying it will abolish the liaison office in the first in a series of measures that Kim Yo-jong, the sister of leader Kim Jong-un, threatened a day earlier to take unless Seoul stops the sending of such leaflets.
She also warned of dismantling a now-shuttered industrial park in Kaesong and scrapping a military tension reduction agreement signed in 2018, calling for a halt to all hostilities along the border.
North Korea vowed to put those threats into action, even though South Korea promised to take legislative measures to ban such activity. The North derided Seoul's envisioned move as "a little more advanced excuses."
North Korean defectors and conservative activists have occasionally sent a large number of leaflets for more than a decade via giant balloons sharply criticizing the communist regime and its leader. These are often sent with US$1 bills and USB memory sticks to get more North Koreans to pick up the leaflets.
South Korea's government has advised against sending such leaflets, but the defectors have often ignored such an appeal, citing their right to freedom of expression. North Korea has strongly bristled at anti-Pyongyang leaflets, seeing them as a serious hostile act aimed at undermining the authority of its leaders.
Experts say that North Korea's latest move to cut off communication lines appears to be part of a stance it has long devised against South Korea apparently in frustration over the prospect of getting little from maintaining friendly inter-Korean relations in denuclearization talks with Washington and cross-border projects.
"North Korea appears to have long thought about the move since it apparently devised a hard-line stance against South Korea when Kim Jong-un climbed up Mount Paekdu in October last year," Hong Min, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said.
He referred to Kim's horse riding up the North's most scared mountain in October. The leader is known to travel to the mountain before making important policies. About one month after the trip, he demanded the withdrawal of all South Korea-built assets in the Mount Kumgang resort on its east coast, which had been touted as a symbol in inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation.
The demand augured ill for cross-border ties, which had been buoyed by three inter-Korean summits held between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim in 2018.
Inter-Korean relations, however, have remained chilly since a no-deal summit in February last year between Pyongyang and Washington. North Korea has balked at all of South Korea's offers for talks and cooperation, frequently complaining about Seoul's foot-dragging for fear of possible violations of sanctions.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said the prospect for inter-Korean relations will likely remain bleak for the time being as North Korea appears to be placing its ties with the South on the back burner.
"As has been the case in the past, the North tends to sever communication lines as a first step in a transition to a hawkish stance," he said. "It appears to be trying to have some period of cooling off with South Korea by using the leaflet issue as an excuse."
Still, some observers say there might be a silver lining in that Kim Yo-jong has spearheaded South Korea bashing, with leader Kim remaining out of picture altogether. They see it as a signal for "room" for Pyongyang to make a quick turnaround in future inter-Korean relations.
"Kim Jong-un's stepping aside suggests the North could make a last-minute turnaround, saying there still remain friendly ties between the leaders of the two Koreas," said Hong, the research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
"It seems that North Korea is taking a two-track approach, with Kim Yo-jong leading the criticism and Kim Jong-un staying on the sidelines in inter-Korean affairs."
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