North And South Korea Restart Communication Channels After Near 14 Months Of Silence

Jul 27, 2021
Originally published on July 28, 2021 1:48 am

SEOUL — North and South Korea reconnected hotlines across the demilitarized zone Tuesday, after a nearly 14-month long disconnect.

Both Pyongyang and Seoul hailed the move as a step toward healing strained ties between the rival states, although neither side suggested the move could lead to another round of summitry or progress in stalled nuclear negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington.

"We hope that inter-Korean communications are never again suspended," Lee Jong-joo, spokesperson for the south's Unification Ministry, in charge of inter-Korean relations, told reporters this morning, "and that we can discuss various inter-Korean issues and implement agreements through the restored channels."

"Now, the whole Korean nation desires to see north-south relations recover from setbacks and stagnation as early as possible," added a report from the north's Korean Central News Agency. The leaders of the two Koreas, it said, "agreed to make a big stride in restoring mutual trust and promoting reconciliation."

The incident shed light on how the two rival states communicate across the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.

The South's Yonhap News Agency reports that there are five known hotlines between the two Koreas. They connect the two countries' leaders, militaries, spy agencies and agencies in charge of inter-Korean relations.

Normally, military and inter-Korean affairs officials check in by phone each morning and afternoon. All lines were severed last year except for the line between the intelligence agencies.

President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un decided to restore the links in an exchange of letters ongoing since April, South Korean Presidential Office spokesperson Park Soo-hyun told reporters. The exchange was reported earlier this month by the South's Joongang Daily newspaper.

The severing of ties in June of 2020 was bitter, but also theatrical. The North blew up a liaison office in the northern city of Kaesong, which functioned as a de facto embassy, and accused the South of treacherously allowing defectors and dissidents to send anti-Pyongyang leaflets over the border into the North.

Pyongyang also staged several ballistic missile tests, although it has held off on testing nuclear weapons and strategic missiles since 2017. As recently as March, Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong maligned Moon as a "parrot" repeating what she called the U.S.' "gangster-like logic."

If North Korea watchers are not exactly gushing optimism at the revived inter-Korean communications, it's probably because they've seen too many cycles of détente and diplomacy, followed by stalemate and then military provocations by the North.

Lee Ho-ryung, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a think tank under the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul, has seen plenty of such cycles, but she believes this time is different.

In addition to the combination of international sanctions and chronic food shortages with which North Korea is perpetually struggling, the coronavirus pandemic has seen its borders shut, and domestic travel drastically limited, due to anti-virus measures, and an exodus of most diplomats and international aid agencies from Pyongyang.

The decision to reach out to Seoul, Lee says, is "based on the judgment that South Korea is the only country that North Korea can reach out to and still save face."

North Korea is of course also aware that Moon is determined to revive diplomacy with North Korea, as he seeks to cement his legacy during the final year of his five-year term of office.

Lee adds that "during the pandemic, the [North Korean] military's role has expanded throughout North Korean society." Soldiers have been ordered to help fight the pandemic, farm fields and build housing, she says, all to keep livelihoods and society stable. "As a result, North Korea can no longer use strategic provocations for leverage in negotiations, as it did in 2016 and 2017."

Her conclusion: "Even though North Korea has restored inter-Korean communication channels, I don't think there will be any major change to their basic external policies or inter-Korean policies."

That implies that a resumption of stalled nuclear talks with the U.S. does not appear in the cards, at least for now. Despite the Biden administration's repeated offers of dialogue without preconditions, Pyongyang appears unimpressed.

"We are not considering even the possibility of any contact with the U.S., let alone having it, which would get us nowhere, only taking up precious time," Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon was quoted by state media as saying last month.

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For the last year or so, North Korea has communicated with South Korea in one of two ways. It has lashed out with insults and missile tests. Or North Korea has just been silent. Today, there was a small step toward reconciliation. The two countries reconnected some phone hotlines that were cut more than a year ago. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is with us now from Seoul. Hi, Anthony.


KING: What are these hotlines? And how do they work?

KUHN: Yeah. There are actually five hotlines between these two Koreas. They connect the countries' leaders, their militaries, their spy agencies and the agencies that deal with inter-Korean relations. And four of them were restored today. That's all of them except for the spy line, which, interestingly, was never cut even in the worst of times. The Korean officials used the inter-Korean and military lines to check in every morning. They use just a couple of minutes to say what's up. The South Korean government released a recording of today's call, in which their official basically just said, hi, we're glad the lines are back up. And now that they are, we hope we can bring both Koreas some good news.

KING: Has either country said why they reconnected them?

KUHN: Well, South Korea is saying that this is the result of an exchange of letters that happened between President Moon Jae-in of the South and Kim Jong Un of the North starting in April. It actually had been reported that these two leaders were writing to each other, especially around the time President Biden held a summit with President Moon in Washington in May. Both sides are saying that this restoration of hotlines should leave to - lead to an improvement of ties. North Korea even said that neither Korea wants relations between the two to stagnate. But it was, in fact, North Korea that cut these links in June of 2020 with a lot of political theater. North Korea blew up a liaison office in North Korea. It was a point of contact for the two. It blamed South Korea for allowing defectors to send propaganda leaflets into the North. And there are some sharp insults out of Pyongyang, such as Kim Jong Un's sister calling President Moon Jae-in a parrot of the U.S.'s gangster-like logic. And there were ballistic missile tests as recently as March.

KING: OK. But now they're talking about an improvement of ties. Do you think that means the start of another round of diplomacy there?

KUHN: Well, Seoul says there's no mention of any new inter-Korean summit so far. South Korea's president Moon Jae-in would like to make this a last-ditch drive to seal his legacy with a diplomatic breakthrough in his final year in office. People are not tripping over themselves with excitement, however, because the two Koreas have gone through many, many cycles that start with detente and diplomacy. They then get stalemated. And they end up in military provocation. And it's not clear at all that they can break free of that cycle this time.

KING: Ah, OK. So I wanted to ask you whether there was any chance this could lead to a resumption of stalled nuclear talks with the U.S. But it sounds like...

KUHN: Yeah, no sign of that. Two Biden administrations have just offered talks without any preconditions. But North Korea has not budged since last month, when their foreign minister said they're not even considering the possibility of contacts with the U.S. because they think it would just be a waste of time.

KING: There you have it. NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Thank you, Anthony.

KUHN: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.