North Korea has said it is cutting all communication with South Korea because Seoul has not stopped leaflet-filled balloons being floated over the border.
Severing communication between the countries was the first step to “completely shut down all contact means with South Korea”, said state news agency KCNA.
It said the decision had come from Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, and Kim Yong Chol, a former military intelligence chief.
Activists and defectors in the South have been sending balloons over the heavily militarised border for years.
They usually contain leaflets criticising Mr Kim’s human rights abuses and his nuclear ambitions.
KCNA said South Korea had “connived at the hostile acts… by the riff-raff, while trying to dodge heavy responsibility with nasty excuses”.
It said military and presidential hotlines would shut, as would communications at a Korean liaison office.
North Korea did not answer a daily liaison call on Tuesday morning and also went silent on military hotlines, said a defence spokesperson from the South.
The move comes after Mr Kim’s sister last week called the defectors “human scum” and “mongrel dogs”.
However, it is not the first time that Pyongyang has pulled the plug. They last did so amid rising tensions in 2016, with channels eventually restored in 2018.
Dozens of hotlines are in place over matters such as military affairs, shipping and aviation, and humanitarian affairs.
With the North’s history of proactive missile tests, they are seen as crucial to avoid a potentially catastrophic misunderstanding.
The two countries are technically still at war after the Korean War in the 1950s was halted with an armistice but not a peace treaty.
Experts said the North’s move was likely to be a ploy to win concessions from its neighbour or bolster internal unity – with the defectors’ actions used as a convenient excuse.
“North Korea is in a much more dire situation than we think,” said Choo Jae-woo, a professor at Seoul’s Kyung Hee University.
“I think they are trying to squeeze something out of the South.”
Pyongyang is subject to tough economic sanctions over its nuclear programme.
Talks between Donald Trump and Mr Kim over potentially lifting some of them broke down last year.
Business with its biggest trading and aid partner, China, is also believed to have been hit hard when the latter closed the border due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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