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Radio Free Asia

North Korea Watchers Parse Motives Behind Restored Hotline with Seoul

2021-07-28 -- North and South Korea have restored an inter-Korean hotline cut off last year by Pyongyang amid deteriorated relations, in a move that experts called a positive step, but warned against overinterpreting its significance.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have exchanged multiple letters since the third anniversary of their April 2018 summit, and have been renewing their goal of rebuilding their strained relationship, the South's presidential office said Tuesday after communication lines were reopened.

North Korea's state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) said the resumption of communications meant that "Now, the whole Korean nation desires to see the north-south relations recovered from setback and stagnation as early as possible."

"According to the agreement made between the top leaders, the north and the south took a measure to re-operate all inter-Korean communication liaison lines from 10:00 on July 27," it said.

The U.S. Department of State told RFA that it welcomed the resumption of communications.

"The United States supports inter-Korean dialogue and engagement and welcomes today's announcement on the restoration of inter-Korean communications lines. This is a positive step," a department spokesperson said.

"Diplomacy and dialogue are essential to achieving complete denuclearization and to establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula," said the spokesperson.

The hotline had been inactive since June 2020 when Pyongyang shut it down, with state media reporting at the time that it was because Seoul was not taking action to stop groups in the South from launching balloons carrying anti-Kim regime leaflets across the border into North Korean territory.

Pyongyang then blew up an inter-Korean liaison office inside North Korea later in the month.

Cautioned optimism

North Korea watchers in the South expressed doubts to RFA's Korean Service that the restored hotlines would soon lead to warmer relations between Seoul and Pyongyang.

"The argument that North Korea will actively engage in dialogue by restoring these communication lines is still speculative," Kwak Gil Sup, president of the One Korea Center, told RFA Tuesday.

Kim In-tae of the Institute for National Security Strategy told RFA that the restoration of lines cut off by Pyongyang should not be blown out of proportion.

"At this point, it cannot be evaluated as significant enough to be regarded as the beginning of a change in the situation on the Korean Peninsula," he said.

Several experts outside of Korea told RFA that Pyongyang's motive for restoring communications was open to debate.

"We know and have seen reporting on North Korea's dire food situation brought on by the pandemic. While we can't pinpoint Pyongyang's motivation for restoring the communication lines to the food situation, it's certainly a possibility," analyst Soo Kim of the California-based Rand Corporation's told RFA.

"Kim [Jong Un's] foolish pride is a hindrance to directly appealing for international aid. But he knows that the current South Korean government is unlikely to turn a blind eye to the North's humanitarian situation. By opening the door to 'communication' with Seoul, Kim may be indirectly appealing for assistance from the South," she said.

Expectations of change should be kept in check, Soo Kim said.

"We may see Kim slightly modify his demeanor towards the South, but once he extracts what he needs from the relationship, he is likely to discard Seoul once again," she said.

Restoring communication could be a tactical move by Pyongyang to help South Korean progressives in the upcoming presidential election in 2022, or it could be to put pressure on the U.S., the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum's Ralph Cossa told RFA.

"It's also typical of the North's behavior. First they terminate a communications link. Then they later get credit just for restoring it," Cossa said.

"The real question is, what will they have to say once the link is reestablished? Will they be more forthcoming regarding denuclearization? I very much doubt it. Will they make some major positive gesture toward to South? We will have to wait and see but I would not hold my breath," he said.

The fact that Moon and Kim have been exchanging letters is more significant, but bringing the hotline back online is "a small but meaningful step," Mark Barry, Associate Editor of International Journal on World Peace, told RFA, noting that it occurred on July 27, the anniversary of the signing of the armistice agreement that ended hostilities in the Korean War in 1953.

"North Korea appears to be projecting that it is reasonable and open to relations with other nations. If it is going to request international food or medical assistance, then today's move helps pave the way. I would not be surprised if South Korea tries to provide some modest food aid in August or September until the new harvest is ready," he said.

North Korea is dealing with a grain shortage and last year's harvests only produced enough to meet the population's demand for about 10 months, according to a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Analyst Bruce Klingner of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation told RFA that bringing the hotline back is a carrot offered by Pyongyang with strings attached.

"North Korea's resumption of communication lines will be hailed by some as a thaw in inter-Korean relations that portends great opportunities for dialogue and negotiations. Such a view is inevitably followed by advocacy for Washington and Seoul to refrain from anything deemed 'provocative' and to offer yet more concessions and benefits," Klingner said.

Ken Gause of the Virginia-based CNA think tank said the move could be aimed to stoke and exploit tension between Seoul and Washington ahead of annual joint military exercises scheduled for later this month.

"North Korea now mysteriously just comes back up on the net, you know, reestablish communications with South Korea, which of course is going to incentivize South Korea to say we need to downplay the exercises," he told RFA.

Video conference

News of the letter exchanges between the leaders of the two Koreas prompted speculation about another inter-Korean summit in the near future.

Reuters news service reported Wednesday that Moon and Kim were planning a summit, citing South Korean government sources, but Park Kyung-mee, a spokesperson for the presidential Blue House said the report was "not true" and "there have been no discussions" to that end.

The Reuters report also said that Seoul and Pyongyang discussed rebuilding the liaison office.

South Korea's defense and unification ministries confirmed that an inter-Korean phone call took place Tuesday as agreed.

A Blue House official told South Korean media that he was hopeful that the restoration of communication could lead to another summit.

"Now that the two Koreas will continue to engage in working-level consultations, we can think of establishing a video conference system," said Park Soo-hyun, the Blue House's senior public communication secretary.

An unnamed Blue House official told the South Korean Hankyoreh newspaper, "President Moon Jae-in had previously suggested North Korea hold a video conference. We can aim for a non-face-to-face summit."

Reported by Kyung Ha Rhee, Sangmin Lee and Albert Hong. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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