The sudden restoration of inter-Korean communication lines raises hopes for an improvement in strained ties between the two Koreas and the resumption of nuclear talks between the US and North Korea.
South and North Korea reopened direct communication channels Tuesday, 13 months after the North unilaterally severed them and demolished an inter-Korean liaison office in its border town of Kaesong in anger over the sending of anti-Pyongyang leaflets into the communist state from the South.
Announcing the measure, Cheong Wa Dae said President Moon Jae-in had exchanged personal letters with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un multiple times since April and shared an understanding to recover mutual trust and again push the cross-border relationship forward.
The North’s state news agency said the same day that the restoration of communication lines would “have positive effects on the improvement and development” of inter-Korean relations.
Speculation has arisen that the move will lead to yet another summit between Moon and Kim, reviving the reconciliatory mood forged between the two Koreas in 2018. Moon and Kim met three times that year.
The North’s apparent shift toward dialogue with the South came as it has been struggling with deepening economic difficulties amid the spread of COVID-19 and international sanctions imposed on the impoverished regime to curb its nuclear arms and ballistic missiles development programs.
With his five-year term ending in May, Moon appears more than eager to resume inter-Korean talks and carry forward his peace agenda for the peninsula.
Pyongyang seems to have judged that reengaging with the Moon administration is necessary to get around its predicament.
Setting its sights on the eventual resumption of nuclear talks with the US, the North may expect Seoul to be instrumental in getting Washington to agree on a deal on terms favorable to the recalcitrant regime.
Nuclear negotiations between the US and the North have stalled since the second summit between then-US President Donald Trump and Kim ended without a deal in Hanoi in February 2019.
Trump’s successor Joe Biden’s administration has offered to meet with the North “anytime, anywhere without preconditions,” since it completed a monthslong review of Washington’s policy approach to Pyongyang in April. During her visit to Seoul last week, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman reiterated a call for Pyongyang to return to dialogue, saying Washington was looking forward to a “reliable, predictable and constructive” way forward with it.
But the Biden administration remains resolute in maintaining sanctions until substantial progress is made toward the complete denuclearization of the North. It has also made clear its readiness to raise issue with dire human rights conditions in the North and other autocratic countries.
Pyongyang has so far rejected Washington’s overtures for dialogue. Its reopening of inter-Korean communication lines may suggest Kim has decided to restart nuclear talks with the US on the footing of improved ties with the South.
During his first in-person summit with Biden at the White House in May, Moon went the extra mile to secure the Biden administration’s commitment to previous agreements both he and Trump had reached with Kim.
Pyongyang might well want to use Moon’s eagerness to carry forward his peace agenda even at the risk of downplaying nuclear threats from the North to draw more concessions from Washington.
With the Biden administration adhering to its principled position in diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang, Seoul’s preoccupation with cross-border cooperation could fall out of step with Washington in keeping pressure on the North, until the Kim regime takes concrete steps toward complete denuclearization.
Moon’s aspiration to hold an additional summit with Kim might also prompt criticism that he is seeking to use the event to sway voter sentiment in favor of a ruling party candidate in the lead-up to the next presidential election set for March.
Seoul and Pyongyang restored communication lines between them in time for the anniversary of a truce accord being concluded in 1953 to end the three-year Korean War. The two sides might have chosen the day to give a more symbolic meaning to the measure. But the crucial lesson from the truce should be that inter-Korean peace can be guaranteed by strong deterrent power, not by a repetition of reconciliatory gestures.
The Moon administration should see to it that its last-ditch pursuit of yet another inter-Korean summit will not be allowed to undermine efforts to denuclearize the North and weaken the joint defense posture between Seoul and Washington.
By Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org