Friday, September 17, 2021

Koreas speak again on inactive channels, agree to improve ties

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SEOUL, South Korea: North and South Korea have exchanged messages on inactive communication channels for more than a year and agreed to improve ties, positive steps that still leave the resumption of stalled negotiations to rid the North of their nuclear weapons.
Korean liaison officials held several telephone conversations on Tuesday, including one on a military hotline, and agreed to resume talks regularly, Seoul officials said. Rivals use the channels to present their positions on issues and even propose a broader dialogue, and ties are also critical to avoiding accidental clashes along their disputed maritime border.
While renewed communication could help ease tensions on the world’s most heavily fortified border, it is only a small first step. Pyongyang is unlikely to revive vigorous cooperation programs with Seoul or return to the US-led nuclear talks anytime soon. Some experts say North Korea is instead seeking to improve ties with South Korea in hopes of persuading the United States to make concessions when nuclear diplomacy with Washington finally resumes.
Those efforts have stalled for more than two years amid disputes over the punishment of US-led sanctions in the North. During the diplomatic standoff, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has threatened to expand his nuclear arsenal if the United States does not abandon its hostile policy, an apparent reference to sanctions.
On Tuesday, the two Koreas announced that their leaders, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, exchanged personal letters several times since April and decided in those exchanges to resume communication on the channels.
Moon’s office said the two leaders agreed to “ restore mutual trust and develop their relationships again as soon as possible. ” Northern state media said Kim and Moon agreed to “ take a big step in the recovery of the mutual. trust and promote reconciliation by restoring severed inter-Korean communication links. ”
The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, welcomed the announcement of the reopening of communication channels and “ fully supports the continued efforts of the parties towards the improvement of their relationship, sustainable peace and complete and verifiable denuclearization. off the Korean peninsula, ” said the deputy UN spokesman. Farhan Haq said.
The resumption of communication on Tuesday comes on the 68th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, which pitted South Korea and United States-led UN forces against Korea. North and China. That armistice has yet to be replaced by a peace treaty, leaving the Korean peninsula in a technical state of war, with around 28,500 American soldiers still stationed in South Korea.
In a speech marking the anniversary that North Korea calls V-Day, Kim vowed to overcome difficulties related to the pandemic and prepare for any changes in the foreign political environment. His speech published by state media on Wednesday made no mention of his nuclear program and contained no harsh rhetoric against Washington and Seoul.
During times of tensions with Seoul and Washington, North Korea occasionally cuts off channel communication by not responding to phone calls or faxes from South Korea.
The most recent cut came in June last year after North Korea accused the South of failing to prevent activists from floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets across its border. An angry North Korea later blew up an empty liaison office built by South Korea just north of the countries border.
Many experts said the provocative action indicated that North Korea was frustrated that Seoul was unable to revive Korea’s lucrative joint projects that gave the North much-needed foreign currency and to persuade the United States to ease sanctions.
Those sanctions, along with last summer’s storms and border closures during the coronavirus pandemic, are hitting the North’s isolated economy, creating what Kim has called its “ worst ever ” crisis. Still, outside monitoring groups have seen no signs of mass starvation or social chaos in the country of 26 million people.
Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University, said the resumption of communication probably won’t lead to a dramatic improvement in ties anytime soon, but it could pave the way for something in the future.
“ North Korea knows that it has to sit down with the Biden administration one day. He believes that South Korea still has effective value … to get Biden to move ” in a direction that favors, Nam said. “ North Korea can also build an (international image) that it is willing to continue to dialogue. ” with the outside world.
Moon, who advocates further reconciliation with North Korea, previously traveled between Pyongyang and Washington to facilitate a 2018 summit between Kim and then-US President Donald Trump, the first such meeting between the countries’ leaders. But North Korea abruptly turned its back on Moon after a second proposed summit between Kim and Trump failed in early 2019 after Trump rejected Kim’s push for broad sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling his main. nuclear complex.
Since taking office in January, the administration of US President Joe Biden has called on North Korea to return to the negotiating table. But last month, senior North Korean officials, including Kim’s powerful sister, dismissed the prospect of an early resumption of the talks.
Some experts believe that North Korea may be forced to move closer to the United States or South Korea if its economic difficulties worsen. By taking steps to improve relations with Seoul now, the North may be preparing for that moment.
Park Won Gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Ewha Women’s University, cautioned against reading too much about what restoring communication channels on the North’s economic difficulties means. He cited reports that North Korea is still refusing aid even from China, its main ally, due to concerns that aid deliveries could spread the virus.
He said North Korea may be hoping that warm ties will help South Korean liberals who support better ties with the North win the presidential election next March.
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