North Korea declared the 1953 Korean War armistice nullified on Monday, following through on a longstanding threat that it renewed last week amid rising tensions with South Korea.
The move comes as the United States and South Korea are in the midst of two months of joint military drills, which started on March 1, and on Monday they began another planned joint military exercise that involved bringing 2,500 troops from the United States. Stirring up a sense of crisis among its impoverished people, North Korea was also staging an unusually vigorous military drill of its own, South Korean officials said.
However, there were no signs of hostility along the border between the two Koreas. South Korean officials said they were increasing their vigilance amid fears that North Korea might use the United States-South Korean military drills and a fresh round of United Nations sanctions as an excuse to create an armed skirmish against the South.
“We must deal strongly with a North Korean provocation,” the South’s new president, Park Geun-hye, said during her first cabinet meeting on Monday. She called for the protection of people living on a border island that was attacked by North Korean artillery in 2010 and of South Koreans working in a joint industrial park in the North Korean border city of Gaesong.
But she also said her two-week-old government would work to build “trust” with North Korea.
During the cabinet meeting, Ms. Park also criticized senior military officers for playing golf last weekend amid the tensions with the North. Her office was investigating news reports that a military golf course in Seoul was crowded with senior army officers, including generals, on Saturday and Sunday.
Kim Min-seok, spokesman of the Defense Ministry, admitted that some some officers played golf at the weekend. But he added that none of them served in sensitive commanding posts.
The exchange of bellicose language between the two Koreas has recently intensified, recalling the level of tension after the North Korean artillery barrage in 2010, which left four South Koreans dead. After the United Nations imposed the new sanctions as a penalty for the North’s third nuclear test, on Feb. 12, the North said that it would nullify the armistice and that it was being threatened with a pre-emptive nuclear strike that it might itself pre-empt with nuclear strikes on Washington and Seoul. South Korea responded that in the case of such attacks, the North Korean government would be “erased from the Earth.”
On Monday, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said that the armistice had been nullified. The North followed through on another threat as well, cutting off a Red Cross hot line that the two Koreas used to discuss humanitarian issues.
However, the two continued to operate channels of communication to allow hundreds of South Koreans to commute to the Gaesong industrial complex, one of the last remaining symbols of inter-Korean cooperation.
North Korea had often threatened to nullify the armistice or called it scrapped in times of tension, especially when the United States and South Korea were conducting military drills. Since the mid-1990s, it has tried to undermine the armistice, demanding that Washington negotiate a peace treaty with it.
The United States and South Korea started two months of regular drills, called Foal Eagle, on March 1, which involve 10,000 American troops, many of them brought in from bases outside South Korea. The additional drills that began Monday, named Key Resolve, involve 10,000 South Koreans and 3,000 Americans, along with more sophisticated American aircraft and warships. The two sets of drills add considerably to the usual 28,500 troops the United States has in South Korea.