North Korea has declared it is no longer bound by the Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War now that South Korea has joined the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). It also warned that its military would respond with "prompt and strong military strikes" to any attempts by Seoul or Washington to intercept North Korean vessels under the PSI. Pyongyang's latest move serves both to bolster the sense of embattlement at home and to encourage greater efforts in the ongoing 150-day economic campaign. It also lays the groundwork for reshaping the focus of any future negotiations with the United States.
The North Korean military mission to Panmunjom (which serves as the North Korean liaison for issues dealing with the 1953 Armistice Agreement) declared May 27 that North Korea was no longer bound by the agreement that ended the Korean War. The north claimed that South Korea and the United States had violated the agreement through the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which in part focuses on stopping North Korean vessels involved in the transfer of nuclear or missile technology to other states. South Korea committed its full participation in the PSI following North Korea's May 25 nuclear test. The North Korean military's announcement, later reiterated by the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland — which coordinates inter-Korean relations — was coupled with threats that North Korea's military could no longer guarantee the safety of U.S. or South Korean ships or aircraft along the west coast of North Korea. This is an area near the disputed Northern Limit Line, the western maritime extension of the DMZ that divides the two Koreas. The area, a prime crab-fishing ground, saw deadly clashes between North and South Korean naval vessels in 1999 and 2002 (though in 2005 Pyongyang and Seoul signed a new maritime agreement that allows commercial vessels from each country to traverse each other's waters in certain areas). Pyongyang's latest steps to escalate tensions around the Korean Peninsula serve a dual purpose: one internal, the other external. Domestically, Pyongyang has been quick to announce and hold rallies around its recent attempted satellite launch and its nuclear test. In part, this show of strength is intended to belie any rumors or information that has trickled into the north related to Kim Jong Il's stroke last year to show that Kim remains firmly in control and unafraid of any foreign interference. The rising military and technological displays are also related to Kim's reshuffling of the north's top leadership, concentrating power further in an expanded National Defense Commission (NDC) as a collective core of future leadership. This group, then, can serve to balance various interest groups in North Korea. It can also provide guidance and support for Kim's successor. It is rumored that Kim may even hand over power to one of his sons — likely the youngest one Kim Jong Un — in 2012, remaining behind the scenes as an elder statesman and relying in part on the NDC to backstop the fledgling leader until he is more capable. As part of the ramp-up to 2012 (the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth), North Korea launched a 150-day economic campaign, running May 10 to Oct. 10, to rally the nation behind a construction and production boom. Like prior campaigns, this serves both as an attempt to leap forward in industrial development, and as a nationalist rallying point. The nuclear test, coming in the early days of the campaign, serves as a symbol of North Korean strength. It also serves as a reminder of the embattled nature of the regime, as Pyongyang would tell it, to reinforce the need to focus on local capabilities rather than to rely on foreign assistance. But there is also an external focus to the actions. The announcement of a withdrawal from the 1953 Armistice Agreement in the short term may be intended to apply further pressure on South Korea, but in the longer term it is directed at the United States. When North Korea concludes its current 150-day drive (during which it will likely carry out another long-range missile test and possibly another nuclear test), Pyongyang will once again make itself available for negotiations with the United States. This time, North Korea is looking to shift the topic of talks away from denuclearization and toward the status of relations with the United States. The armistice agreement was technically only a cease-fire, not a peace accord, and South Korea is not even a signatory to the deal, choosing at the time not to accept a divided Korea by signing. By claiming the Armistice Agreement is now null and void, Pyongyang first and foremost brings the question of war or peace to the negotiating table with Washington. North Korea does not want to talk nuclear disarmament. Instead, it wants to talk normalization of relations. The nuclear program, while serving as a useful tool for encouraging negotiations, has thus distracted from Pyongyang's main intent. When Kim Jong Il is more confident of his re-arrangements of the elite in Pyongyang, and when the current 150-day drive is complete, North Korea will again open channels for dialogue. It will focus primarily on bilateral talks with the United States, not the multilateral six-party format. Pyongyang had tried to time its 2003 nuclear crisis to force a replacement of the Armistice Agreement around the 50th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. But it failed for multiple reasons, not least of which was the misreading of U.S. security views following the 9/11 attacks. Pyongyang is now looking at a new symbolic date, the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War next June. And this time, North Korea intends to make sure the stakes are higher and the focus is centered on the status of the peace accord.