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North Korea: Does nullifying the 1953 Korean armistice mean war?
Things are getting very tense on the Korean Peninsula
 
A South Korean soldier walks up the stairs at an observation post on March 12, near the demilitarized zone, which separates the Koreas.
A South Korean soldier walks up the stairs at an observation post on March 12, near the demilitarized zone, which separates the Koreas. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

On Monday, things went from bad to worse on the Korean peninsula. The official North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun said that the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War had been "declared invalid," and that "the time for final showdown has arrived." Pyongyang also apparently disconnected the emergency hotline between North and South Korea, a Red Cross telephone line, blaming a joint U.S.-South Korea military exercise that began on March 1 and continues into April. Last week, North Korea threatened to pre-emptively nuke the U.S.

In response, Washington added new sanctions against North Korea, on top of tough United Nations Security Council measures implemented last week to punish Pyongyang for a February nuclear weapon test. The new U.S. sanctions target the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea, trying to freeze it from the U.S. financial system, and blacklist three North Korean officials.

"The United States will not play the game of accepting empty promises or yielding to threats," Thomas Donilon, President Obama's national security advisor, said Monday at the Asia Society in New York. "To get the assistance it desperately needs and the respect it claims it wants, North Korea will have to change course."

Scrapping the 1953 armistice could be a really big deal — the agreement is in lieu of a peace treaty, and it also set up the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) — but, as the U.S., the U.N., and South Korea all pointed out, North Korea can't just unilaterally nullify the armistice, since it was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly. Still, formal nullification or not, "Seoul is concerned that the North is clearing a path for an attack or other provocation," says Alastair Gale in The Wall Street Journal.

"So why are the North Koreans acting so crazy?" says Walter Russell Mead at The American Interest. It appears Pyongyang's "fraying relationship with China" is the main culprit. Beijing not only agreed to the new U.N. sanctions, but, according to the blog Ask A Korean, it's also cracking down on cross-border smuggling, sending prices for basic foodstuffs in North Korea soaring by as much as 70 percent.

That's potentially a big deal if true. The sanctions which just passed last week were some of the strictest imposed yet on the North — and these sanctions have almost certainly not started biting yet. The young Kim [Jong Un] is still an untested leader, even in the eyes of his wretched, brainwashed countrymen, and a wave of nationwide privations to kick off his reign cannot be a welcome development. Though an uprising seems unlikely given how things have gone in the past, rampant famine probably won't help him solidify his authority.... Though it may be wishful thinking, here's hoping that this latest bit of brinksmanship may be some of the North's last. They really do seem to have finally painted themselves into a corner this time. [American Interest]

Shredding a "sacrosanct armistice agreement" and all nonaggression pacts, cutting the key military hotline, declaring "all-out war," and threatening to nuke America — "in a way, it's almost inspiring how many unique and different types of threats the regime has been able to drum up over the last several weeks," says John Hudson at Foreign Policy. And after "playing the nuke card," it's hard to imagine what else Kim can threaten to "manifest his rage." But sadly, he still has a few "tools in his temper-tantrum toolbox, according to top North Korean experts."

Threaten Internal Instability
It's a little counterintuitive but not out of the question. The threat of internal chaos, if delivered from the highest rungs of power, probably wouldn't intimidate the United States, but it would certainly spook China, which wants to avoid a flood of North Korean refugees across its border....

Threaten to Share Nukes
This could get the West's attention....

'Demonstrate' That the Armistice Is Over
Short of all-out war, this tactic could manifest itself in the form of a modest conventional military hit on South Korea — an approach Pyongyang took in 2010.... It goes without saying that the move would carry the risk of a South Korean counteroffensive and the end of food aid from the South. [Foreign Policy]

Or, North Korea could resort to "acts of terrorism," like bombing airliners or assassinating South Korean officials, says Hudson. "Regardless, it's safe to say that any escalation beyond the current juncture represents a step into unchartered and extremely dangerous territory."

North Korea will likely do something, Victor Cha at the Center for Strategic and International Studies tells The Los Angeles Times. Not only is Kim Jong Un furious about the sanctions and the U.S.-South Korean military drill, but since 1992, Pyongyang has greeted every new South Korean leader with some sort of military provocation — and President Park Geun-hye was inaugurated Feb. 25.

But at least one expert says Pyongyang is just engaging in very loud saber-rattling. Kim's increasingly provocative language "bears some watching, but I don't think this is a sign of impending conflict," Christopher Hill, George W. Bush's top envoy at North Korean nuclear talks, tells The Los Angeles Times. Kim and his government are trapped between the starving, unhappy North Korean population and China, and that's who they are really aiming their rhetoric at. "I don't think there is anywhere they can go," Hill concludes. "There aren't a lot of great choices."

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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