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Why Are Countries So Hung Up On Hotlines?

  • Charles Recknagel

When North Korea sought to show its displeasure over new UN sanctions on March 8, it went straight for the jugular.

The hotline.

Effective immediately, North Korea announced, it was severing its hotline with Seoul. And, it warned, tensions were so high that "a nuclear war may break out right now."

The warning of nuclear war was perhaps more bluster than substance. But by hanging up its hotline, Pyongyang found a way to demonstrate its anger with a gesture that anyone, anywhere, could recognize.

Hotlines are potent symbols because, around the world, they have come to represent the final chance for countries to resolve conflicts before they escalate to shooting. The imagery goes back to the Cold War days, when the prospect of a nuclear war was real enough that last chances were needed.

READ: North Korea Cancels Nonaggression, Hotline Pacts With South

The most famous hotline is between Washington and Moscow. It was established in 1963, a year after the Cuban missile crisis. In those days, the hotline to Moscow was popularly known in America as the "red phone" and many people actually believed it was red -- the color of emergency phones.

A popular U.S. film in 1964, "Dr. Strangelove," shows the American president phoning the Soviet premier, with the main concern being whether they can hear each other:


In fact, the original hotline was not a phone at all but a teleprinter, or telex, link. Messages could be encoded and typed on one end, and decoded and read out at the other.

The coding was necessary to keep the communications private. But it also was considered to offer a better chance of reaching an understanding than if leaders spoke directly over the phone during a crisis -- when tempers might get the better of good judgment.

Since 2008, the Moscow-Washington hotline has become a secure computer link over which messages are exchanged by e-mail. Hotline technology, like everything else, changes with the times.

Another famous hotline is the one between Moscow and Beijing. It was used during a 1969 frontier confrontation between the two countries, then severed by Beijing after it refused a Soviet peace attempt. The hotline was revived in 1996.

There are also hotlines between London and Moscow and between Paris and Moscow, both dating back to the Cold War.

More recently, NATO and the Russian military established a hotline last month.

All these hotlines are intended to provide a safety net for tussles between rivals. So, too, does the hotline between India and Pakistan. They set up their link in 2004, after both countries tested nuclear bombs and almost waged a new war over the disputed territory of Kashmir at the end of the 1990s.

Today, hotlines are considered such a fundamental part of international relations that even some countries which have no conflicts share them. Brunei and Vietnam, for example, have very good relations. But they, too, announced last year they would setup a hotline.

And why not? As North Korea showed on March 8, one never knows when a hotline might come in handy, or for what reason.

Already, North Korea has slammed down its hotline with Seoul on five previous occasions. Reason enough to suspect it will soon restore the line so it can do so again.
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