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(2nd LD) N. Korea severs communication hotline with S. Korea
SEOUL, March 11 (Yonhap) -- North Korea severed the inter-Korean communication hotline that runs through the truce village of Panmunjom following its threat to do so last week, South Korea's unification ministry said Monday.

   The ministry said the North seems to have disconnected the emergency link set up to ensure prompt two-way communication to deal with any sudden developments along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the two Koreas. It said attempts to contact the North by telephone at 9 a.m. failed.

   Pyongyang's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland said Friday that the link will be cut along with all channels of communication through Panmunjom. This is the third time that the North has unilaterally severed the hotline with the two other instances taking place in 2008 and 2010. On the previous two occasions the link was restored after cross-border relations improved.

   The committee in charge of conducting talks with the South also warned all non-aggression pacts between Seoul and Pyongyang were null and void as of Monday, and made clear the isolationist country can take military measures to counter provocations caused by the start of the annual South Korea-U.S. Key Resolve exercise. Pyongyang in recent days stepped up its warnings against the military exercise that kicked off earlier in the day, which is designed to repel any armed aggression from the North. The North said the war game is a prelude to an invasion of the communist country.

   This threat came just days after the supreme command of the North Korean military issued a formal statement that said the North will no longer respect the Armistice Agreement that halted the Korean War (1950-53) as of Monday.

   Inter-Korean tensions have been running high since the North detonated its third nuclear device on Feb. 12 and the United Nations agreed last week to slap tougher sanctions against the communist country for its provocations.

   The North has repeatedly threatened to turn Seoul and Washington into a "sea of fire" and claimed it has the nuclear capability to harshly strike its foes.
Despite Pyongyang following through on its pledge to sever the hotline, the unification ministry said the North is using a separate South-North military communication line to process South Korean nationals arriving and leaving the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

   The complex, located just north of the DMZ, is home to 123 South Korean companies. Construction of the complex began in June 2003 with first goods being produced in late 2004.

   The ministry said 842 South Koreans will cross over during the day, while 337 will return through the Dorasan South Korean Customs, Immigration and Quarantine office that acts as a checkpoint for people and vehicular traffic moving between the two Koreas. The industrial park is the only remaining commercial link between the two countries, with Seoul allowed to continue operations there despite all other cooperative links being cut after the North torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel in the Yellow Sea in March 2010.

   Meanwhile, South Korea's Vice Unification Minister Kim Chun-sig said in a parliamentary hearing that Pyongyang's unilateral nullification of the cease-fire agreement is not legally binding.

   "Such agreements cannot be nullified just because the North takes such step," he said. The official said Seoul will actively seek to ensure that the 1953 agreement remains in force, pointing out that under international convention, the pact remains legitimate until a permanent peace treaty is signed to replace it or if all signatories agree to make changes.

   He pointed out that from 1994 onward, the North has said on numerous occasions it wants to swap the cease-fire pact with a peace treaty.

   The official said that compared to the past, North Korea under Kim Jong-un's leadership seems to be in a hurry to fuel tensions with the outside world.

   Kim, who is known to be in his late 20s or early 30s, took power after Kim Jong-il died suddenly in late 2011.

   yonngong@yna.co.kr
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