In a surprise announcement, North and South Korea said separately Tuesday that they had restored previously severed cross-border communications, a move that could bolster prospects for stalled nuclear diplomacy.
The development comes more than a year after Pyongyang blew up ties — and an inter-Korean building that had been symbolic of the relationship. The two sides also chose an auspicious date for the announcement: the 68th anniversary of the truce that halted the Korean War.
The two Koreas, which technically remain in a state of war, said that the decision to restore links had come after a series of personal letters were exchanged by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un starting in April in an attempt to shore up ties.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a statement that the two sides had reopened all inter-Korean communication lines as of 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Pyongyang, which is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and a deepening economic crisis, said it wants to improve ties “as early as possible” after the two leaders agreed to take “a big stride” in rebuilding mutual trust and promoting reconciliation.
“The restoration of the communication liaison lines will have positive effects on the improvement and development of the north-south relations,” it added.
Moon’s office also noted that the two sides had exchanged personal letters, and characterized the moves as a first step toward improving ties.
The Unification Ministry in Seoul lauded the moves as a step toward improved inter-Korean relations, saying that it hoped the two Koreas could discuss a variety of “pending issues and implement what was agreed between them.”
That could include the Comprehensive Military Agreement, which was signed in September 2018 during an inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang. The agreement calls for a series of tension-reducing measures that have yet to be concluded.
Moon and Kim held three summits in 2018, though inter-Korean relations were essentially cut off in June last year after the North unilaterally ended all official military and political communication links with the South. The North Korean regime had cited Seoul’s alleged failure to crack down on activists who used balloons to float anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.
Although it’s unclear where improved ties could head, inter-Korean dialogue does have a history of laying the groundwork for wider talks. Moon, who has staked much of his legacy on improving ties with Pyongyang, has been credited with helping broker the historic first North Korea-U.S. summit that brought together Kim and then-U.S. President Donald Trump.
“North Korea reconnecting hotlines is the logical first step in re-engaging with the South,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“The next step may be accepting international humanitarian assistance,” he added. “After that, Washington would want to restart denuclearization talks and Seoul would want to arrange separated family reunions.”
In the interim, it’s possible that Kim and Moon could hold a virtual summit. South Korean media reported earlier this month that the two leaders had discussed such talks in their letters, though officials have not commented on such a meeting.
But any resumption of U.S.-North Korea nuclear negotiations, which have been deadlocked since October 2019, may take time as deadlier variants of the coronavirus continue to roil the globe.
“Pyongyang is unlikely to allow much in-person contact until after the pandemic,” Easley said.
North Korea has not officially reported any cases of the virus, but is widely believed to have seen infections. In a sign of how seriously it views the pandemic as a threat to the regime, the country was among the first to close its borders. That move has decimated an already moribund economy, observers say.
Although the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has offered to meet with the North Koreans “anytime, anywhere without preconditions,” the White House has been reluctant to discuss relaxing crushing sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs without concrete progress toward denuclearization.
Analysts say the sanctions are among the last remaining pieces of leverage Washington has over Pyongyang, which has in recent years seen dramatic progress in its nuclear and missile capabilities.
“Washington has stuck to the position since January 2021 that it’s not interested in any Biden-Kim meeting unless denuclearization is seriously on the table — unlike Trump, there will be major strings attached to any meeting with Biden,” said Andrew O’Neil, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Griffith University in Australia.
But Kim’s concerns could be more immediate than the issue of nuclear weapons.
“Parallels have already been drawn between the 1990s famine and the impact of COVID on North Korea,” O’Neil said, referring to widespread hunger that devastated the isolated country three decades ago.
The North’s supposedly infallible supreme leader has even spoken of the challenge, calling the food situation there “tense.”
The country is expect to see a food shortage of about 1.35 million tons this year after typhoons, flooding and a dearth of farming materials amid the pandemic damaged crops, the Korea Development Institute in Seoul said in a report last month. And with borders still shuttered, when it comes to aid, Pyongyang may be looking not to put all of its eggs in one basket.
“South Korea may look like an attractive target for aid and humanitarian assistance, to offset dependence on China and Russia,” O’Neil said.
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