International

North and South Korea Reopen Communication Lines After a Tense 14 Months

Written by Tamarindo News

SEOUL — North and South Korea on Tuesday reopened ​military and other diplomatic communication hotlines after a hiatus of nearly 14 months, as the North said it wanted to improve ties “as early as possible” amid a deepening economic crisis.

The decision to restore the links was brokered in a series of letters exchanged since April between President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, ​both countries’ governments said on Tuesday. The pair chose to reopen communications on a symbolic day: ​the anniversary of the truce that effectively ended the Korean War in 1953.

The North cut off all communications with South Korea in June of last year, saying that it had no need to continue to communicate with a country it deemed an “enemy.” It has since refused to pick up the phone when South Korean officials made routine daily calls on the military and other inter-Korean hotlines. ​

Days after communications were cut off, relations reached their lowest point in recent years when the North bombed an inter-Korean joint liaison office in the North Korean town of Kaesong near the border, where officials from both sides had maintained offices.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, duty officials from the two countries stationed at Panmunjom, a ​so-called truce ​village that straddles the​ inter-Korean​ border, spoke on the phone, the South Korean government said. ​Separately, the South’s military said it had reopened direct telephone and fax lines with the North’s Korean People’s Army.

“We expect the restoration of the South-North communications lines to make positive contributions to improving and developing bilateral relations,” ​said Mr. Moon’s spokesman, Park Soo-hyun.

​Reporting the same announcement, the North’s​ official Korean Central News Agency ​said that “the whole Korean nation desires to see the North-South relations recovered from setback and stagnation as early as possible​.”

Ties between the countries boomed in 2018 when Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim met three times, ushering in a rare détente on the Korean Peninsula that replaced years of tensions stoked by North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile tests. But relations soon soured after Mr. Kim’s ​second ​summit meeting with former President Donald J. Trump ended ​in Hanoi, Vietnam, ​in early 2019 without an agreement on how to roll back the North’s nuclear weapons program ​or ease the United Nations sanctions imposed on the North. ​

After Mr. Kim returned home ​empty-handed from Hanoi, North Korea blamed the South. Mr. Kim’s government ordered that communications be cut and the liaison office in Kaesong be destroyed.

But Mr. Moon’s government has kept up its efforts to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. One of the priorities in such efforts was to reopen communication lines.

South Korea has long emphasized the importance of ​cross-border hotlines to avert unintended clashes between the two militaries. ​Both Koreas have also used the hotlines to propose dialogue and discuss humanitarian supplies and other conciliatory gestures, such as arranging reunions of families long separated by the Korean War.

Mr. Moon’s government also helped enact a new law that banned sending propaganda leaflets into the North. North Korea has long bristled at these leaflets, which typically depict Mr. Kim as a cretinous dictator toying with nuclear weapons​, and cited them as one of the reasons it cut off communications last year.

Mr. Moon has also urged President Biden to build on the 2018 Singapore agreement, which Mr. Trump signed with Mr. Kim to set broad goals of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

After a monthslong policy review, the Biden administration committed to take a “calibrated” and “practical” approach ​toward the North. But the North has yet to respond to Washington’s offer to reopen dialogue “anywhere, anytime without preconditions.”

North Korea’s ​economy, already hit hard by international sanctions, has been further pummeled by the coronavirus pandemic. ​The country’s deepening economic troubles may have compelled North Korea to reopen communications with the South, said Lee Byong-chul, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.

Last month, Mr. Kim warned of a looming food shortage​.

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