As Allahpundit and I often write, announcements and threats from North Korea get greeted with a large, and earned, amount of cynicism. The saber-rattling usually means (a) shoring up support in a domestic power struggle, (b) attempting to increase leverage for aid demands, or (c) both. Still, the rapid deterioration of diplomatic connections continued today, and this time aid itself has been impacted:
North Korea has cut off a Red Cross hotline with South Korea as it escalates its war of words against Seoul and Washington in response to a military drill in the South and U.N. sanctions imposed for its recent nuclear test.
The North had threatened to cut off the hotline on March 11 if the United States and South Korea did not abandon their joint military exercise.
The Red Cross hotline is used to communicate between Seoul and Pyongyang which do not have diplomatic relations.
“We called at 9 a.m. and there was no response,” a government official from South Korea said. The line is tested each day.
If they want more aid, cutting off the Red Cross hotline — even though it’s apparently used primarily for security purposes rather than aid — seems like a counter-intuitive move. The next step would be a significant escalation:
Pyongyang has also threatened to cut off a hotline with U.N. forces in South Korea, at the border “truce village” of Panmunjom.
That could have some real-world consequences. At least in theory, the active hotline allows for quick resolutions of errors and misunderstandings that might rapidly deteriorate into open fighting and a restart of the Korean War. By cutting this off, Kim Jong-un makes war by misstep a lot more likely, which is again a counter-intuitive move if the aim is to shore up political support short of starting a war.
So what’s actually going on? Perhaps the new sanctions might have the military and/or Kim regime worried about a total destabilization that risks their grip on power, and war might be a rational option to a coup or a “people’s revolution” that will see most of those in power now lined up against the wall. It’s still possible that the regime thinks that increased saber-rattling will increase their leverage to win concessions, but they’re getting close to an all-in bet on that approach and eliminating the safety valves that will keep the guns mainly silent. At some point, China may end up taking matters into their own hands to prevent Kim and his regime from creating a massive refugee crisis on their doorstep, and their recent endorsement of sanctions seems to be sending Pyongyang a message that they’re not receiving.