Koreas exchange messages, agree to improve relations

Published July 28, 2021
In this April 27, 2018, file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, poses with South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a photo inside the Peace House at the border village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone, South Korea. — AP
In this April 27, 2018, file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, poses with South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a photo inside the Peace House at the border village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone, South Korea. — AP

SEOUL: North and South Korea exchanged messages on Tuesday in communication channels that have been dormant for more than a year and agreed to improve ties positive steps but ones that still leave any resumption of stalled negotiations to rid the North of its nuclear weapons a long way off.

Liaison officials from the Koreas had several phone conversations including one on a military hotline and agreed to resume speaking regularly, Seoul officials said. The rivals use the channels to lay out their positions on issues and even propose broader dialogue, and the links are also critical to preventing any accidental clashes along their disputed sea boundary.

While the renewed communication could help ease tensions across the world’s most heavily fortified border, its only a small first step. Pyongyang is unlikely to revive vigorous cooperation programs with Seoul or get back to the nuclear talks led by the United States anytime soon. Some experts say North Korea is instead aiming to improve ties with South Korea in the hopes it will persuade the US to make concessions when nuclear diplomacy with Washington eventually does resume.

Those efforts have been stalled for more than two years amid wrangling over punishing US-led sanctions on the North. During the diplomatic impasse, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has threatened to enlarge his nuclear arsenal if the US doesn’t abandon its hostile policy, an apparent reference to the sanctions.

On Tuesday, the two Koreas announced their leaders Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have traded personal letters several times since April and decided in those exchanges to resume communication in the channels.

Moon's office said the two leaders agreed to restore mutual confidence and develop their relationships again as soon as possible. The North's state media, for its part, said Kim and Moon agreed to make a big stride in recovering the mutual trust and promoting reconciliation by restoring the cutoff inter-Korean communication liaison lines.

Tuesday’s resumption of communication comes on the 68h anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, which pitted South Korea and US-led UN forces against North Korea and China. That armistice has yet to be replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula in a technical state of war, with about 28,500 US troops still stationed in South Korea.

North Korea occasionally cuts off communication in the channels by not replying to South Korean phone calls or faxes in times of tensions with Seoul and Washington.

The most recent cutoff came in June of last year after North Korea accused the South of failing to stop activists from floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets across their border. An angry North Korea later blew up an empty, South Korean-built liaison office just north of the countries border.

Many experts said the provocative action signaled the North was frustrated that Seoul failed to revive lucrative joint-Korean projects that gave the North badly needed foreign currency and to persuade the US to ease the sanctions.

Those sanctions, together with storms last summer and border shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic, are battering the isolated Norths economy, creating what Kim called its worst-ever crisis. Still, outside monitoring groups haven’t seen signs of mass starvation or social chaos in the country of 26 million people.

Published in Dawn, July 28th , 2021

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