Russia expressed concern at the renewed tensions between the Koreas.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said on June 16: “We call for restraint from all the sides.”
Tensions between North and South Korea have been escalating for weeks, prompted by defector groups in the South sending propaganda across the border.
Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong – considered a close and powerful ally – threatened at the weekend to demolish the office.
There were hopes for improved relations between North Korea and South Korea and its close ally the US after President Donald Trump met Kim Jong-un at the North-South border last June, but nothing materialized and the atmosphere has since deteriorated.
North Korea is under crippling US and UN economic sanctions over its militarized nuclear program. Washington has not yet commented on the North’s latest action.
In recent weeks, North Korea has repeatedly condemned South Korea for allowing propaganda into its territory.
Defector groups regularly send such material via balloons, or even drones, into North Korea.
North Korea has announced it will cut off all official communication channels with South Korea, including a hotline between the two nations’ leaders.
It said this was the first in a series of actions, describing South Korea as “the enemy”.
Daily calls, which have been made to a liaison office located in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, will cease from June 9.
North and South Korea had set up the office to reduce tensions after talks in 2018.
The two states are technically still at war because no peace agreement was reached when the Korean War ended in 1953.
North Korea “will completely cut off and shut down the liaison line between the authorities of the North and the South, which has been maintained through the North-South joint liaison office… from 12:00 on 9 June 2020,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) report said.
Military communication channels will also be cut, it said.
When the liaison office was temporarily closed in January because of Covid-19 restrictions, contact between the two states was maintained by phone.
North Korea and South Korea made two phone calls a day through the office, at 09:00 and 17:00. On June 8, the South said that for the first time in 21 months, its morning call had gone unanswered, although contact was made in the afternoon.
“We have reached a conclusion that there is no need to sit face-to-face with the South Korean authorities and there is no issue to discuss with them, as they have only aroused our dismay,” KNCA said.
Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister, threatened last week to close the office unless South Korea stopped defector groups from sending leaflets into North Korea.
She said the leaflet campaign was a hostile act that violated the peace agreements made during the 2018 Panmunjom summit between South Krea’s Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un.
North Korean defectors occasionally send balloons carrying leaflets critical of the communist region into the North, sometimes with supplies to entice North Koreans to pick them up.
North Koreans can only get news from state-controlled media, and most do not have access to the internet.
Ties between North Korea and South Korea appeared to improve in 2018, when the leaders of both countries met three times. Such high-level meetings had not taken place in over a decade.
A group of 13 North Korean restaurant workers who defected from China to South Korea earlier this year have been released.
According to South Korean officials, twelve women and one man had now begun the formal process of resettlement in South Korea.
The group defected in April from a North Korean state-run restaurant in the Chinese city of Ningbo.
At the time Seoul said the size of the defection was “unprecedented” and held them for further investigation.
Most North Korean defectors are first held at an interrogation facility to screen for potential spies and then put through a state resettlement program for three months, the AFP news agency reports.
However, in this case the National Intelligence Service (NIS) said it held the workers in “protective custody” because the case was very high profile. It added that North Korea was using the case for propaganda by claiming the female workers had been abducted by Seoul’s spy agency.
The thirteen defectors left a halfway house on August 11, local media reports said. Seoul’s Unification Ministry merely confirmed they had been released but did not give more details.
The release comes just one day after a diplomat at the North Korean embassy in London was reported to have defected and fled abroad with his family.
Thae Yong Ho had served as deputy to the ambassador and was responsible for promoting the image of his country to British audiences.
The group of restaurant workers all left China by legal means on April 6, a Chinese spokesman confirmed after the defection. Unlike many defectors, they all had valid travel documents.
The restaurant was reportedly in Ningbo, in China’s north-eastern province of Zhejiang.
North Korea runs some 130 restaurants in other countries which provide a much-needed source of income.
The North Korean staff is thought to be handpicked from families loyal to the state.
South Korea is holding a rare hearing into the detention of 12 North Koreans who defected to the South.
A group of human rights lawyers – Lawyers for a Democratic Society – who requested the hearing want to determine whether South Korea’s continuing detention of the women is legal.
The North Koreans, who worked as waitresses at a North Korea-run restaurant in China, arrived in Seoul in April.
Seoul said they came of their own free will, while Pyongyang maintains they were abducted.
The hearing will not be public and it is unclear if the women will be present to give their testimony, but it could set a precedent for how South Korea deals with the hundreds of defectors it receives every year.
The defectors have not spoken in public and the South Korean government has indicated that they don’t want to.
Some of their relatives and friends in North Korea have given interviews. According to the Associated Press which has a bureau in Pyongyang, Ri Gum-suk, the mother of one of the workers, So Kyong-ah, said all the parents were heartbroken.
Her husband, So Thae-song told AP: “They say our children defected, making their own free decision, but then why don’t they put our children in front of us parents? I want to hear the words from my lovely daughter. Why don’t they let her meet us? They say they defected willingly as a group. I can’t accept this”.
According to the AP, the interviews were unforced though the interviewees may well have been rehearsed by the authorities in Pyongyang.
The usual procedure when North Koreans defect to South Korea is for them to be accommodated in special centers.
They are questioned by the intelligence service to ascertain whether they are spies, and they are also given courses in how to negotiate life in South Korea – how to get a job, how to use a bank account, etc.
Many North Korean defectors find the transition hard. Suicide rates among defectors are higher than among the general population.
Lawyers for a Democratic Society says it “strives to further the development of democracy in Korea through litigation, research, and investigation”.
The group says it is “dedicated to increasing public awareness and collaborating in joint activities to protect basic human rights and attain social justice”.
Lawyers for a Democratic Society has more than 900 members who are prominent lawyers.
It is fair to say that they are not naturally sympathetic to the current right-of-centre government but their prime concern is the protection of democratic rights.
According to South Korean media, the group of lawyers obtained power-of-attorney from the defectors’ families in North Korea for the hearing.
About a thousand people defect every year from North Korea. The number has fallen in recent years as North Korea’s economy has improved.
Most get over the porous border with China and the indications are that the Chinese authorities are more lenient than they used to be.
These waitresses had visas to be in China because they were working openly there, so the usual argument of the Beijing authorities – that they should simply be returned to North Korea as illegal migrants – didn’t hold.
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