The tragedy of the North-South hotline


South Korean soldiers stand guard at the border village of Panmunjom between South and North Korea at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Feb. 27, 2013 in South Korea.


Chung Sung-Jun

SEOUL, South Korea — Whenever North and South Korea spar words, one poor little bystander always suffers: the hotline.

Maintained by the Red Cross, the Seoul-Pyongyang hotline system is one of few channels where the two foes can directly get in touch with each other. Ever since they were set up in 1972, the four lines in total have proven handy whenever the peninsula has inched towards confrontation.

But at 9 AM and 4 PM Wednesday, Seoul called the North twice—a daily practice for years. Pyongyang didn’t pick up either time.

The snafu came a day after Seoul rejected a proposal of talks from the North. Last weekend, the North said it would reopen the hotline, which was cut off in late March during a two-month bout of war threats.

Pyongyang became flippant when it realized that its proposed delegate would not meet the South Korean Minister of Unification, but rather a vice minister from the same department. Minister of Unification Ryoo Kihl Jae is the president’s head honcho for relations with North Korea.

The North Korean government appoints a surfeit of so-called ministers to send to negotiations. But their real rank isn’t at the same level of elite North Korean circles.

The hotline was particularly important because it controlled cross-border traffic to the Kaesong Industrial Zone, the contentious business park that was closed in early April. About 880 South Korean managers oversaw 53,000 North Korean laborers in the area. All of them have been withdrawn.

But the situation hasn’t fallen this far in a long time. In 2009, North Korea cut off the hotline, but allowed civil aviation authorities to maintain a communications link between Pyongyang and Seoul.

Earlier this year, few analysts expected North Korea to actually close down the hotline for so long. The scale of the confrontation has come as a surprise to most correspondents in Seoul.