Why North Korea threat to abandon armistice rings hollow

North Korea has already claimed to abandon its armistice with the South once – in 2009, when, like today, it was facing a new round of sanctions for a nuclear test.

Lim Byung-sik/Yonhap/Reuters/File
The US Second Infantry Division participates in a live-fire exercise earlier this year as part of cold-weather training with the South Korean Army in Yeoncheon, South Korea. North Korea has threatened to abandon the armistice with the South that ended the Korean War.

If North Korea’s bellicose declaration Tuesday that it was threatening to withdraw from the Korean War armistice in response to annual US-South Korea military exercises sounded a little familiar, there’s a good reason.

Pyongyang had already announced its withdrawal from the 1953 armistice in 2009 when, like today, the North was fuming over mounting international pressure in response to its nuclear program and military activities.

The United States announced Tuesday that it had agreed with China on a North Korea sanctions resolution it expects the United Nations Security Council to adopt by the end of the week. North Korea’s last announcement of a “nullification” of the armistice also accompanied a round of UN sanctions.

“Maybe North Korea should check its files, because they already abrogated the armistice in May 2009,” says Bruce Klingner, a Northeast Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington. “They said at the time they had abrogated it and were no longer bound by it,” Mr. Klinger says, “so I guess you could say history is repeating itself.”

The North Korean government said in its statement that it was acting in response to US-South Korean military exercises set to continue through April. The bilateral military activity is “a systematic act of destruction aimed at the Korean armistice,” the statement said.

While the North has never liked the annual US-South Korea joint exercises, more infuriating still to Pyongyang is word of the US-China agreement on sanctions as punishment for the North’s Feb. 12 nuclear test, regional analysts say.

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said she expects the sanctions resolution to “take the UN sanctions imposed on North Korea to the next level, breaking new ground and imposing significant new legal obligations” on the North.

The new resolution “for the first time” targets the “illicit” activities of North Korean diplomats, North Korean banking relationships, and illicit transfers of bulk cash, Ambassador Rice said.

North Korean fund transfers – into the country or out – to pay for parts and materials the North needs for its illicit nuclear and missile programs are already subject to restrictions. This has reduced officials to moving large sums of money around in suitcases, says a Security Council diplomat familiar with the sanctions negotiations.

The new resolution is designed “to impose a penalty, a price” on Pyongyang for continuing its nuclear and missile programs, the diplomat notes, adding that the text includes a number of new provisions that weren’t in past sanctions resolutions.

The new resolution for the first time targets the North’s uranium-enrichment program (earlier sanctions targeted its plutonium enrichment), and it includes new financial sanctions to make it even harder for the North to “move around the funds it needs to continue its illicit programs,” the diplomat says.

In addition, under the new resolution, countries will have a “binding legal obligation to kick out” any North Koreans working for a UN agency but found to be also working on behalf of Pyongyang’s “illicit programs,” the diplomat adds. These are “entirely new travel sanctions unprecedented in Security Council history.”

The resolution also toughens measures aimed at interdiction of illicit trade and cargo inspections. It sets out obligatory inspections of North Korean vessels or North Korea-bound vessels suspected of carrying illicit cargoes (previous interdiction measures were nonbinding), and it targets aviation cargo for the first time.

It even includes an “illustrative list of luxury goods” that will be off limits to North Korea. The specified items include jewelry, luxury autos, racing cars, and yachts, according to the diplomat – all items that North Korea’s leaders use to reward the military and other elites in the impoverished country.

Despite the talk of “unprecedented” sanctions, however, some analysts look at past experience and say they doubt the new resolution will do much better at curtailing North Korea’s programs or altering its behavior.

“Rice will come out and call what they’ve agreed on meaningful and unprecedented, but the UN has been unwilling to do the things that would really make a difference, and I don’t think there’s a lot of reason to think that’s going to change,” says Klingner.

In the meantime, while the armistice “nullification” invites eye-rolling, “on the other hand there is reason to be concerned” because the North has responded to chastisement with provocation in the past, he adds.

He notes that the North has its own “winter training cycle” under way involving its air and ground forces. “With large numbers of military forces in close proximity” because of the two sides’ exercises “there’s always the potential for a clash on the peninsula,” he says.

Add to that the fact that both North and South Korea have new leaders who are sounding more confrontational, Klingner adds, and the potential for a “miscalculation” grows.

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