Amid the pause in DPRK-US relations and Kim Yo-jong’s June statement about Washington’s misguided expectations, there seemed to be no bright spots in inter-Korean relations before the end of the year. But the author was wrong: On July 27, 2021, South and North Korea reopened the communication hotlines that were shut down 13 months ago.
On June 9, 2020, the North unilaterally severed contacts in protest against anti-Pyongyang leaflets sent by activists across the border. And on June 16, North Korea continued the pressure by blowing up the inter-Korean joint liaison office in Kaesong. However, on December 14, 2020, the South Korean parliament passed a bill prohibiting the sending of anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the inter-Korean border. On July 19, the authorities finally moved to take concrete action against Park Sang-Hak and Co – a police spokesman announced that the investigation into the leader of the “Fighters for a Free North Korea” was completed and the case was referred to the prosecutor’s office for charges of violating the law on the development of inter-Korean relations, which prohibits any unauthorized shipment of propaganda and other materials to the DPRK.
According to Park Soo Hyun, senior secretary for public communication of the Blue House, the agreement was reached through an exchange of letters between Moon Jae-in, President of the Republic of Korea and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The issue has allegedly been discussed since April of this year, and the two heads of state also agreed to restore mutual trust between the South and the North. “The two leaders of the South and the North also shared an understanding to recover mutual trust and again push the countries’ relationship forward,” Park added.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) also reported on the reestablishment of communication, noting that this event will positively improve inter-Korean relations. A regular border communication channel helps prevent accidental collisions and allows the movement of people and cargo to be organized when necessary. The hotline serves as a permanent channel for inter-Korean talks. In addition, there are channels of communication at the Panmunjom border crossing point, between the National Intelligence Service in Seoul and the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang. There is also a line of communication between the heads of the South and the North.
The news was welcomed in Washington and Seoul, regardless of party affiliation.
On July 28, Minister of Foreign affairs Chung Eui-yong stressed that the restoration of inter-Korean lines of communication is a manifestation of the will of leaders in the North and the South to restore mutual trust and develop relations. As a sign of Pyongyang’s readiness to resume dialogue, Chung Eui-yong cited the North’s continued moratorium on nuclear tests and long-range missile launches, despite the negative outcome of the 2019 North Korea–United States Hanoi Summit.
The ROK media immediately began writing that “the reopening of communications could potentially lead to a breakthrough in the resumption of high-level dialogue, including an additional summit.” Still, on July 28, the ROK presidential administration dismissed a Reuters report that South and North were negotiating for another inter-Korean summit. Citing unnamed sources, the agency reported that the sides are considering various options for high-level talks between the South and the North leaders, including a virtual summit.
But there was smoke without fire: Park Soo Hyun expressed hope that another round of face-to-face talks between the South and the North leaders would occur before Moon Jae-in’s term expires in March 2022 and could take place via videoconference because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is what Reuters reported. On July 28, a spokesman for the Ministry of Unification said it plans to set up a videoconferencing system for inter-Korean working-level consultations as soon as possible. In April of this year, a special studio was set up at the headquarters of the inter-Korean talks in Samcheong-dong, Seoul, for videoconferencing via a dedicated channel. Four hundred million won (about $340,000) was allocated for its creation.
Both the Blue House’s plans to send a special envoy to North Korea and the issue of providing the North with vaccines against the coronavirus were denied.
On July 30, Lee In-young told reporters that Seoul offered Pyongyang to discuss setting up videoconferencing for inter-Korean talks at the working level. This offer was sent the day before to the North Korean side via a newly restored communication line. And on August 2, North Korea sent detailed information to the South about the fishing vessels illegally operating in the Yellow Sea, their number, and exact location. In other words, some valuable bilateral contacts were resumed immediately.
But the author is interested in something else: what could be behind this step forward and how optimistic one should be about it. The ROK interpreted this step as a triumph of Moon’s diplomacy or another sign of the end of the DPRK. “The shift toward dialogue came as Pyongyang has been struggling with multiple challenges, including a growing sense of urgency about the spread of the more transmissible delta variant of COVID-19, continued global economic sanctions and worsening food insecurity. In this context, even the fact that Pyongyang has moved to inter-Korean dialogue while it maintains close ties with Beijing is attributed to the circumstance that “in the midst of various complicated challenges at home, the North may seek closer ties with the South so as to make the external environment more favorable to its interests.”
But according to the author and some of his respondents, Seoul, not Pyongyang, took the initiative. The Moon administration can find no way to raise its rating other than a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations – its attempts to defeat the pandemic do not look like a handsome victory, and Moon’s European tour ended in semi-success. While this is not a step forward but a restoration to zero of minimal communication channels, a lot of PR can be squeezed out of this by speculating about the future and stretching out such pleasant talk until March 2022.
However, realists are pessimistic, and the first of these is the sister of the DPRK leader. On August 1, 2021, Kim Yo-jong, a North Korean politician serving as the Deputy Department Director of the Publicity and Information Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea, issued a press statement. She again warned the South against optimistic expectations, “…inside and outside of South Korea about this measure in their own expanded interpretations, even spreading the issue of an inter-Korean summit among the public. I think it’s a premature rashness of judgment.” In her view, the future of inter-Korean relations will be more influenced by whether or not the U.S. and the ROK will hold a joint military exercise in August 2021.
Conservative politicians and experts also strongly advise against “sleep on it.” They note that ‘this will be Moon’s last chance to promote his much-touted “peace process” on the peninsula before his term ends in May 2022. However, he should not seek another grandstanding event only to help the ruling Democratic Party of Korea win next year’s presidential election.” And in general, it is worth remembering the priorities: “The Moon administration should see to it that its last-ditch pursuit of yet another inter-Korean summit will not be allowed to undermine efforts to denuclearize the North and weaken the joint defense posture between Seoul and Washington.”
Yoo Seong-min, presidential contender from the conservative main opposition People Power Party (PPP) says quite openly that “If the Moon administration stages a promotional show as its term is nearing the end, no member of the public will fall for that trick. Since the administration will be replaced soon, it should focus on facilitating talks that the next government can succeed to.” It seemed to reflect the view that Roh Moo-hyun also held a summit in 2007, months before the end of his term.
“I think we have to view this as a positive sign for inter-Korean relations ― but not to get too excited about any sort of breakthrough just yet,” Harry J. Kazianis, Senior Director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest, told The Korea Times. And Professor Kim Dong-yup of the University of North Korean Studies pointed out that the KCNA reported the restoration of communication lines, while the leading newspaper Rodong Sinmun did not. So (in his opinion), this news is more for an external audience than an internal one.
The author also agrees with Kim Yo-jong on this point – it is not hard to repair a cut cable, and it has happened half a dozen times since the beginning of inter-Korean relations. Much more important will be the North’s reaction to the very likely exercises that traditionally mark “autumn aggravation,” but the fuss about them is in the author’s following text.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.