North Korea Severs Hotline with South

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: The hotline between North and South Korea went dead this morning. The North cut it off. Pyongyang is upset about South Korea's military exercises with the United States and about new United Nations sanctions imposed in response to North Korea's nuclear program. North Korea has even announced that it is scrapping the 1953 ceasefire that ended the Korean War. So tensions are high, even if no one is seriously concerned about war breaking out. But the shutting down of that hotline got us thinking, where are there hotlines still in place? And how are they used anyway? Haraldur Ã?žÃ? ³r Egilsson wrote 'the book' on the history of hotlines, or at least had a paper published while he was a student of diplomacy. He's now director of the Akureyri Museum in Iceland. So, first of all, what do you know about this hotline, this red phone between North Korea and South Korea? What is it?

Haraldur Egilsson: Well, it's most probably a similar device as has been established between states who have nuclear capabilities. I sincerely doubt that it is a direct phone line between the two states. It's more likely to be some kind of a teletext device as they were originally established.

Werman: Right, a teletext device. I mean, that goes against everybody's conventions and notions of what these hotlines are all about. We mostly think of them as phones. But the most famous hotline came directly out of the Cuban missile crisis. That would be the one between the White House and the Kremlin. Take us back to the Cuban missile crisis. What were they using?

Egilsson: Well, they didn't have a direct link, that was the main problem. They found out during those fateful days in October that they didn't have a means to get messages quickly. Even the Soviet Embassy in the US got the message through the media.

Werman: I mean, your paper on the history of hotlines describes how the Russians would basically call up Western Union, and I have this image of the cable guy with the pillbox hat, you know, basically this major player trying to avert nuclear war.

Egilsson: Yeah. They were using bike couriers to get messages to the Soviet Embassy. Perhaps it was good that the courier on the bike didn't know how important part he played in the Cold War. And just thank God that someone didn't hit him while he was biking around with those messages.

Werman: Yeah, really, thank goodness. So today, here we are in the 21st century. What is the state of the hotline, like between Washington and Moscow? Are they actually, there are phones, I mean, I think President Obama calls Putin from time to time.

Egilsson: Yes, of course. Naturally, the telephone is an important tool of diplomacy and fortunately people like Obama and Putin call each other up on the phone. But not, I wouldn't, I would advise against it if Russia and the US are in a state of emergency and are considering going to war. I would think that they wouldn't call each other directly, because it might create a misunderstanding or misapprehension.

Werman: And what do you recommend, email these days?

Egilsson: I would recommend that we wouldn't come to a situation where we would have to decide whether to send an email about let's not go to war. And that's probably in the North Korean situation. So I think they are using this hotline, as states have sometimes done, as a symbol, as a symbol to send a signal to the world that things are this bad, we are even severing our means of secure hotlines.

Werman: But don't you think, in some ways, the presence of a hotline between countries where there is tension, doesn't that ultimately show that these countries with these at-the-brink situations don't really want to go to war? They're looking for a kind of an out?

Egilsson: Absolutely. Absolutely. They are doing everything to avoid going to war.

Werman: Well, thanks for talking with us. Haraldur Ã?žÃ? ³r Egilsson, director of the Akureyri Museum in Iceland. Appreciate your time.

Egilsson: Thank you.