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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on June 10)

All News 07:11 June 10, 2020

Shift to hostility
North Korea should stop ramping up tensions and return to dialogue

North Korea is drumming up its hostile rhetoric toward South Korea. Quashing any remnants of the peaceful mood created by the historic 2018 Panmunjeom Declaration issued by President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the North announced Tuesday that it was cutting off all communication channels with the South.

The North's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the North was severing all cross-border communication lines including the one between Cheong Wa Dae and the North's Workers' Party headquarters. The KCNA said that it was a decision made by Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and Kim Yong-chol, a former hardline military intelligence chief.

The announcement came days after Kim Yo-jong blasted civic groups made up of defectors who send anti-North Korean leaflets tethered to balloons over the border.

In a thinly-veiled threat, the KCNA added that the communication cut-off was "the first step of the determination to completely shut down all contact means with South Korea ..." It also said that the "work towards the South should turn into the one against the enemy." This is the first reference to South Korea as the "enemy" in 20 years.

Cheong Wa Dae made no response. Instead, the Ministry of Unification immediately called on North Korea to maintain the communication lines. The ministry said Seoul will continue efforts to ensure peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.

It is still too early to determine what transpired to produce the North's latest shift in attitude, and to predict what will follow. Kim Yo-jong has already warned of closing the liaison office, dismantling the Gaeseong Industrial Complex and the Mount Geumgang tourism project, and more alarmingly, rescinding a 2018 inter-Korean accord to ease miitary tension on the peninsula.

If they are threats, Seoul should not cower but should coolly assess the risks. Even if the latest vitriol is a bluff to make the South push for the easing or lifting of U.S.-led international sanctions, the South should not make light of any possible real threat, either.

Buried deep in its fight against the economic and geopolitical uncertainties wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, Seoul once again finds itself having to squarely tackle its long-standing source of tension.

As hollow as the unification ministry's statement sounds, the two Koreas would be hard pressed to find another option at this time. Ratcheting up tension and brinkmanship should be the playbook of a past era, not the future.

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