The recent restoration of key lines of communication on the Korean Peninsula that had been dormant for over a year following North Korea’s severing of communications with South Korea last summer has led to hopes for renewed efforts at improving both inter-Korean and U.S.-DPRK relations. The revival of communications has led to speculation about the possibility of an inter-Korean summit meeting, which has been suggested as a possible jumping-off point for a resumption of nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea.
While the restoration of these lines of communication is certainly a positive development, it is important to keep it in perspective. The severing and subsequent revival of hotline communications on the Korean Peninsula are not new. In fact, in just the past decade it has proven to be a relatively common occurrence. And just as restoration of communications is not new, neither is a North Korean return to inter-Korean dialogue and negotiations with the United States. Taken together these developments could eventually lead to positive breakthroughs, as they have in the past. But those breakthroughs will only come about as a result of a diplomatic process, and treating a return to that process as a victory in and of itself risks ceding the advantage to North Korea. As such, it is important that both the United States and South Korea avoid making upfront concessions related to sanctions removal or U.S.-ROK joint military exercises as rewards for restarting inter-Korean engagement or talks with the United States.
A Familiar Process
Far from a novel tactic, the severing and subsequent revival of inter-Korean hotlines is in fact an oft-repeated element of North Korea’s diplomatic playbook. Since the first inter-Korean hotline was installed at Panmunjom in 1971, North Korea has on more than one occasion severed hotlines, including as early as 1976 following the killing of two U.S. military personnel in the Joint Security Area by North Korean soldiers armed with axes.
More recently, in 2010 North Korea severed all communications with North Korea in the aftermath of its sinking of the ROK naval corvette Cheonan, and did so again in 2013 in response to sanctions levied against the DPRK following the country’s third nuclear test. Inter-Korean hotlines were again cut off in 2016 after South Korea shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test.
The most recent severing of the hotlines on the Korean Peninsula in June 2020 followed North Korean criticism of what it claimed was a failure on the part of the South Korean government to prevent to the launching of leaflet balloons into the North by defectors and other activists.
Breakthroughs and Pitfalls
While the cycle of severing and restoring inter-Korean hotlines is not new, the restoration and subsequent use of those hotlines has led to important breakthroughs in inter-Korean and U.S.-DPRK relations in the past. Following overtures made to South Korea during North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s 2018 New Year’s speech, an order was given to revive the Panmunjom hotline in order to facilitate discussions about joint Korean participation at the 2018 Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Those discussions eventually bore fruit, and the 2018 Olympic games would feature symbols of peace and reconciliation, a joint Korean ice hockey team, and high-level diplomatic contacts. This successful example of sports diplomacy led to a series of inter-Korean summits between Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which proved instrumental in paving the way for the two summit meetings between Kim and former U.S. President Donald Trump.
The positive developments that took place in the aftermath of the 2018 restoration of the Panmunjom hotline should be seen as an example of what is possible following restored inter-Korean communications. Discussions about a possible inter-Korean summit have reportedly taken place, even as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic remains a significant barrier. Should a summit meeting – held either in person or virtually – take place, it could once again be a stepping stone to renewed U.S.-DPRK diplomatic negotiations.
It is important, however, not to treat these outcomes as victories themselves even as they might represent important checkpoints on the path towards important diplomatic breakthroughs. Shortly after the Biden administration came to power, it reportedly began back-channel diplomatic outreach efforts towards North Korea, which the DPRK subsequently ignored. It likely did so based on a strategic calculation that playing hard to get would benefit it in the long run; by refusing early talks, North Korea may have been hoping that the Biden administration would place more value on simply getting the DPRK to the table in the future, producing greater inducements and concessions as a means to do so.
The U.S. must avoid falling prey to this strategy and granting significant concessions to North Korea that it can pocket simply for restarting the diplomatic process. To be sure, the provision of such things as humanitarian aid can be offered as a measure of goodwill in response to North Korean willingness to resume the process, but larger concessions such as sanctions removal should instead be tied to reciprocal North Korean concessions.
The Unites Stated and South Korea should also avoid allowing the prospects of renewed diplomacy and engagement to determine the level of joint military readiness. Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s sister, recently criticized upcoming U.S.-ROK joint military exercises, suggesting that progress towards improved inter-Korean relations in the aftermath of the restoration of the hotlines might be tied to whether or not those exercises take place.
The Alliance must ensure that it does not allow North Korea too so easily drive events on the Korean Peninsula by suspending or significantly scaling back the upcoming joint exercises.
The restoration of the inter-Korean hotlines has rightly been hailed as a positive development, and the potential resumption of diplomatic engagement presents an opportunity to make some progress in talks with North Korea. Even so, it is important that the United States and South Korea refrain from making substantial early concessions such as sanctions relief as a reward for North Korea’s willingness to restart the diplomatic process.