Earlier this week, both North and South Korea announced that key lines of communication between the two countries which had been dormant for over a year where once again in use. The restoration of inter-Korean hotlines has been seen as heralding a possible resumption of inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation and future improvements in inter-Korean relations. To that end, Reuters is now reporting that officials in the two countries are discussing the possibility of holding an inter-Korean summit and rebuilding the joint inter-Korean liaison office that was demolished last year. Should the plans for a summit meeting and the rebuilding of the joint liaison office move forward, they would represent the first significant steps towards improving inter-Korean relations since relations between North and South Korea entered into a cooling period in the aftermath of the 2019 summit meeting between former U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. It should be noted that as of this writing the Blue House in Seoul is denied the report, but did leave the door open to some sort of virtual summit.
On Tuesday, July 27, the South Korean government announced that following a technical check, a three-minute phone call took place between North and South Korean officials via the hotline installed at Panmunjom. In addition to the Panmunjom hotline, a West Sea hotline that has in the past been utilized by the militaries of the two Koreas was also reactivated, while a third East Sea hotline would also be revived following the resolution of unspecified technical challenges. North Korean state media also confirmed the restoration of the hotlines and reported that the leaders of the two countries agreed to make “big strides” towards improving inter-Korean relations.
The hotlines restored on Tuesday have remained inactive since North Korea’s announcement on June 2020 that it was severing all lines of communication with South Korea following the DPRK’s claim that the ROK government had failed to prevent the launching of leaflets into the North by defectors and other activists. Shortly thereafter, North Korea demolished the joint liaison office in Kaesong that had been established to facilitate communication between North and South Korea. Since its severing, South Korea has continued to make daily calls to North Korea using the Panmunjom hotline.
Relations between North and South Korea 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.
Possible Inter-Korean Summit in the Works
Following the restoration of inter-Korean lines of communication, Reuters is now reporting that North and South Korean officials are in talks regarding a possible inter-Korean summit and the rebuilding of the inter-Korean liaison office. Citing three South Korean government sources, the article reports that no time frame or other specific details about a summit meeting have been raised yet, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic proving to be the most significant barrier. North Korea has maintained strict border closures amid the pandemic, and is unlikely to agree to an in-person meeting until the pandemic has subsided. A virtual meeting could be an option according to the South Korean government sources, with South Korea having constructed a special conference room for virtual inter-Korean discussions.
Those sources also suggested that an inter-Korean summit meeting could serve as a launching point for the resumption of stalled nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea. In 2018, a North Korean overture via the Panmunjom hotline helped to kick off a series of inter-Korean summits between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un, which int turn helped to set the stage for the two summit meetings between President Trump and Kim.
The Biden administration’s North Korea policy, while eschewing the top-down style of diplomacy demonstrated by the Trump administration, places an emphasis on diplomatic negotiations with North Korea.
President Moon, now in the final months of his single five-year term in office, has consistently championed inter-Korean engagement even in the aftermath of the downturn in inter-Korean relations, and will likely be a major proponent of an inter-Korean summit. Moon has previously signaled a willingness to provide North Korea with COVID-19 vaccinations, while other projects such as inter-Korean rail and highway networks could also be priorities for the South Korean administration during a summit and future inter-Korean engagement.
North Korea, meanwhile, is currently in the midst of what appears to be a significant food shortage, and may prioritize the pursuit of some form of humanitarian aid during engagement, and could also view a potential inter-Korean summit as a first step towards restarting negotiations with the United States.