SEOUL, South Korea – The armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953 is, at best, a fragile thing: The countries overseeing it have formally accused each other of more than 1.2 million violations.
But North Korea’s threat to scrap the cease-fire next Monday still matters because the armistice is the key document blocking hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, which technically has remained in a state of war for six decades.
If North Korea follows through on its threat to nullify the document that set up the heavily armed buffer zone between the Koreas, it could drive badly frayed relations even lower. The threat comes as diplomats at the U.N. negotiate sanctions aimed at punishing Pyongyang for its recent nuclear test and as allies Washington and Seoul plan massive war games set to start Monday.
Here’s a look at what the North’s threat could mean for the Korean Peninsula’s fragile peace:
On the ground
The armistice signed July 27, 1953, set up an apparatus meant to govern a cease-fire ending the war. It can be seen most clearly at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South.
The armistice called for the creation of a military demarcation line and the DMZ around it – a 2.5-mile-wide “buffer zone” – with one side controlled by the American-led U.N. Command and the other side by North Korea.
The armistice prohibited “hostile acts” within or across the zone. As a hotline between the sides, it set up a military truce commission at the Panmunjom village that straddles the DMZ.
By scrapping the armistice, North Korea would be effectively refusing to recognize the DMZ, which is a violent place even with the rules of the armistice in place: Hundreds of troops serving under the U.N. command have died in the buffer zone over the years.
“North Korea wants to show it can attack South Korea at any time,” said analyst Cheong Seong-jang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea. “The chance for limited war … has increased.”
The South Korean military says North Korea has violated the armistice by deploying machine guns inside the DMZ, triggering exchanges of gunfire along the border and digging infiltration tunnels.
North Korea has accused the U.S. and South Korea of deploying heavy weapons and combat personnel inside the DMZ, conducting war maneuvers targeting the North and firing at North Korean fishing boats near the western sea boundary.
North Korea said this week that its Korean People’s Army Supreme Command will stop all activities at the “Panmunjom mission of the KPA, which was tentatively established and operated by it as a negotiating body for establishing a peace-keeping mechanism on the Korean Peninsula.”
The North also vowed to cut off a phone line linking North Korea and the United States at Panmunjom.
Fear in Seoul, talks in Washington?
American and South Korean analysts see the threat as an attempt to win direct aid-for-disarmament talks with Washington by raising fears of war on the peninsula. North Korea wants such negotiations in part to secure much-needed aid and to force the removal of 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the South.
“By disavowing the armistice, North Korea is sending a reminder about just how flimsy the peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is,” said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “In Pyongyang’s mind anyhow, this serves to reinforce their argument that formal peace talks and a new security architecture is a prerequisite to full denuclearization.”
But it also stirs fear among South Koreans.
People in Seoul are famously unimpressed with North Korean bluster, but the DMZ is only an hour’s drive from the bustling capital.
“The North Korean threat is a blade that cuts at both the United States and at South Koreans,” said Lee Ho-chul, a North Korea analyst at Incheon National University in South Korea. “For South Koreans, it’s a threat that North Korean forces will now ignore the military demarcation line. That can cause worries among ordinary South Koreans.”
Actually tearing up the cease-fire could remove an important psychological shield for South Koreans as they pursue building one of Asia’s premier economies.
“I’m worried North Korea may be trying to provoke a war,” restaurant worker Lee Hui-sook said in Seoul when asked about the threat. “I feel much more insecure than in the past about whether my country can handle North Korea.”
Bluff or promise?
Since the 1990s, North Korea has frequently threatened to scrap the armistice. In 1996, it followed such a threat by sending hundreds of armed troops into Panmunjom. South Korea boosted its surveillance to its highest level in 15 years, and the troops later withdrew.
The context of the latest threat, however, is important.
This one follows five years of abysmal ties between the Koreas, during which Seoul’s hardline president was met by North Korean nuclear and rocket tests. Attacks blamed on Pyongyang in 2010 killed 50 South Koreans.
New President Park Geun-hye is settling into office in Seoul after making promises to re-engage the North, but with a vague policy about how to get that done.
The North’s latest statement is unusually specific, warning of “lighter and smaller nukes” and “surgical strikes,” and is seen as noteworthy by Seoul because a senior military official from the Korean People’s Army Supreme Command issued the threats on state TV.
But North Korea has made surprisingly specific threats in the past, including vowing to destroy the headquarters of major South Korean newspapers last year, and then later backed away.
Military reaction in Seoul
South Korea’s military is taking the North’s threats seriously.
Army Maj. Gen. Kim Yong-hyun, an official with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in nationally televised remarks Wednesday North Korea was told the drills starting Monday, which involve 10,000 South Korean and 3,500 U.S. forces, are defensive.
He also indicated North Korea and its military leadership will suffer if there are any attacks.
“If North Korea goes ahead with provocations and threatens the lives and safety of South Koreans, our military will strongly and sternly retaliate against the command and its supporting forces,” he said.