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US welcomes restored inter-Korean hotlines

The flags of South and North Korea (123rf)
The flags of South and North Korea (123rf)

The US welcomed the reopening of the inter-Korean hotlines that had been severed for more than a year, calling it a “positive step,” sparking conjecture on whether the development could lead to another round of summits or progress in stalled nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington.

“The US supports inter-Korean dialogue and engagement, and of course welcomes today’s announcement of restoration of inter-Korean communication lines, and we certainly believe that this is a positive step,” Jalina Porter, principal deputy spokesperson for the State Department, said in a briefing Tuesday (US time). “I will also say that diplomacy and dialogue are essential to achieving complete denuclearization and establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

Kurt Campbell, the White House coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, echoed a similar stance, expressing support for dialogue and communication with North Korea, according to the Yonhap News Agency.

On the same day, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stressed that the door to dialogue with the reclusive regime remains open.

“And we’re taking a calibrated, practical approach that leaves the door open to diplomacy with North Korea … even while we maintain our readiness to deter aggression and to uphold our treaty commitments and the will of the Security Council,” Austin said in a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.

The remarks came after the two Koreas announced that all inter-Korean communication lines, including the military hotline, were reopened Tuesday as part of efforts by the two leaders to rebuild trust and improve strained ties.

Pyongyang had unilaterally cut off all cross-border communication channels in June last year, venting frustration for the lack of progress in nuclear talks as well as in protest of Seoul’s failure to prevent activists from sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets into the North. Shortly after, the North blew up a joint liaison office in its border town Kaesong that had been built to foster better cross-border exchanges and communication.

The renewed communication appears to be the most noteworthy exchange between the two Koreas since then, raising the prospect that Pyongyang is ready to reengage after having rebuffed diplomatic overtures from both Washington and Seoul for months.

The resumption of hotlines could pave the way for improved inter-Korean relations that could bring about a potential virtual summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, observers say.

Some have pinned high hopes on a potential resumption of nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington as it did in 2018. The US-North Korea talks to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons have been stalled since the Hanoi summit in 2019, after former President Donald Trump rejected Kim’s offer of major sanctions relief in exchange for North Korea’s denuclearization.

“The progress between the two Koreas could have an impact on the US-North Korea relations, and could prompt them to restart the nuclear talks” said Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies. “Seoul has been calling for the Biden administration to restart the talks with Pyongyang and to take a flexible approach, while Washington indicated that it is ready to talk with the North without preconditions. Moreover, Pyongyang believes it can rely on the Moon administration to persuade Washington to be flexible in sanctions relief.”

Others also cautioned prudence on such optimism that the revived inter-Korean communications could lead to US-North Korea talks.

“The Biden administration has repeated offers of dialogue, but the North insists it won’t restart the talks unless the US withdraws its hostile policy against the North,” said Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University. “The North doesn’t appear to have changed its stance yet.”

Another major challenge appears to be the US-South Korea military exercises scheduled for next month. Pyongyang has frequently denounced the drills between the allies as a hurdle to dialogue.

The allies could downsize the annual summertime drills, considering the COVID-19 situation and to support diplomacy with Pyongyang, but staging the exercises itself could provoke Pyongyang and dent prospects for further engagement.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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