On Tuesday, Seoul suggested holding high-level talks to discuss a range of issues concerning North Korea’s potential participation in the PyeongChang Olympic Games in response to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year address.
With the North having severed communications with the South in February 2016 following Seoul’s decision to withdraw from the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex, Seoul had lacked any real means to engage the North.
According to the Ministry of Unification, the call lasted 20 minutes until 3:50 p.m., during which the two sides’ communications officers checked for possible faults in the inter-Korean connection.
The ministry also said that concerned officials are on standby as the possibility of North Korea making contact again remains open.
|The truce village of Panmunjom (Yonhap)|
North Korea broke its silence earlier in the day, when Ri Son-kwon, the head of North Korea‘s agency handling inter-Korean affairs, announced the plans to reconnect the line at 3:00 p.m. (Pyongyang time). Pyongyang adopted its own time in 2015, which is 30 minutes behind Seoul.
North Korea had responded to South Korea’s suggestion of holding Red Cross talks in July with silence. The North had also remained silent on Tuesday and early Wednesday. According to the Unification Ministry, the South attempted to reach North Korean officials on the northern side of Panmunjeom on two occasions on Tuesday, and once in the morning of Wednesday.
In the televised announcement, Ri said that Kim Jong-un has ordered the communications line to be re-engaged at 3:00 p.m. (Pyongyang time).
Cheong Wa Dae immediately welcomed the development, saying that communication between the two Koreas will be normalized.
“Re-establishing communications is significant. It is deemed that (inter-Korean communications) is taking on a structure that allows communications at all times,” Yoon Young-chan, senior presidential press secretary, said.
In his announcement, Ri said that Kim personally gave the orders.
“In accordance of the leadership’s will, we will communicate with South Korea seriously and earnestly,” Ri said.
Adding that North Korea wishes the games to be successful, Ri said that Kim welcomes President Moon Jae-in’s orders to make preparations for North Korea’s participation. Ri was referring to Moon’s orders given at the Cabinet meeting held on Tuesday.
Ri added that Kim stressed that improving inter-Korean relations was up to the governments of the two Koreas, hinting at Pyongyang’s concerns over US involvement.
While the liberal Moon administration has emphasized the need for Seoul to take the lead in dealing with North Korea, Seoul has highlighted the importance of the South Korea-US alliance, and the need to strengthen military capabilities.
For now, the South Korean government is welcoming apparent changes in Pyongyang’s stance, but concerns remain over the demands North Korea could make in the talks.
While the government remains cautious in assessing Pyongyang’s intentions, the country’s political parties have voiced strikingly varied assessments.
The ruling Democratic Party welcomed the developments claiming that the North has offered a token of peace. The conservative oppositions claim that Kim is only trying to buy time, and trying to create a rift between Seoul and Washington.
“(Kim’s statement on the Olympic games) is a gesture to neutralize the international society’s pressure and sanctions, and to buy time to complete developing nuclear weapons,” Bareun Party chief Rep. Yoo Seong-min said on Tuesday. He also claimed that Pyongyang was trying to undermine South Korea’s national security by inciting conflict within South Korea.
Yoo’s claims fall in line with a number of US media reports claiming that there are signs North Korea is preparing for another missile launch.
The South Korean military, however, refuted the reports saying that although North Korea could conduct a missile launch at any time there were no signs indicating an imminent launch.
By Choi He-suk (firstname.lastname@example.org)