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Could North Korea and South Korea Reboot Relations?

North Korea
Image: KCNA

North and South Korea announced on Tuesday that they had once again begun to make use of communications channels that had been dormant for over a year. At around 10 a.m. local time a technical check was made on the inter-Korean hotline installed at Panmunjom, and a three-minute call between the ROK and DPRK took place just over an hour later. Also restored is a hotline used by the two countries’ militaries in the form of the West Sea hotline, while a similar East Sea hotline is also likely to be revived after some unspecified technical complications can be resolved. The announcement also included the revelation that the leaders of the two countries have been in contact with one another in the form of written letters. The revival of the hotlines suggests a possible resumption of inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation, both of which have stalled in recent years.

In June 2020, North Korea announced that it was shutting down all North-South hotlines and severing all communication with South Korea after it claimed that the ROK had failed to prevent defectors and other activists from launching leaflets into the North. Shortly thereafter, North Korea demolished the joint liaison office in Kaesong that had been established to facilitate communication between North and South Korea. Since then, South Korea has continued to make daily calls using the Panmunjom hotline, and appears finally to have made a breakthrough on Tuesday.

The restoration of the hotlines comes as North Korea continues to deal with a slate of domestic challenges, including the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the DPRK’s associated border closures as well as a growing food shortage. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has described the country’s food situation as “tense,” and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has estimated that North Korea’s uncovered food gap could be as large as 860,000 tons, roughly equivalent to more than two months’ worth of food use.

The restoration of the hotlines may serve as a jumping-off point for renewed inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation. Inter-Korean relations have cooled in the aftermath of the 2019 summit meeting in Hanoi between former President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, during which the two countries were unable to reach an agreement. Following the restoration of the hotlines, North Korean state media reported on Tuesday that the leaders of the two countries agreed to make a “big stride” in improving inter-Korean relations.

Despite the downturn in relations, the South Korean government has continued to sound the horn of inter-Korean engagement. In recent months, the ROK government has suggested that it would be willing to provide North Korea with COVID-19 vaccines, and the resumption of inter-Korean engagement will likely see Seoul attempt to make progress in other projects such as the proposed inter-Korean rail network. In addition, South Korea may see the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue as an opportunity to facilitate a resumption in the stalled negotiations between the United States and the DPRK.

For North Korea, the pursuit of humanitarian and other aid given its current economic and food challenges may have motivated its decision to restore the hotlines. Some experts have pointed out, however, that Pyongyang may also be attempting to utilize renewed inter-Korean dialogue as a means to motivate South Korea to push the United States to make more favorable concessions at such a time that negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea resume.

Sung Kim, the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, said during a recent trip to South Korea that the United States would be willing to meet with North Korea without preconditions, with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State also saying that the United States is open to returning to negotiations.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.