Relations between the two Koreas, frozen for two years, have taken a step forward on Tuesday. Seoul and Pyongyang have restarted the telephone lines that connect both governments, which the North cut off in June last year. They have also agreed to take steps to restore trust and improve their bilateral ties.
In a statement, the Blue House, the South Korean presidency, has indicated that the head of state of the South, Moon Jae-in, and the leader of the North, Kim Jong-un, have exchanged multiple letters since April and have agreed to reconnect the phone line. For its part, the North Korean news agency KCNA has confirmed that the communication channels were reopened at 10 a.m. local time (3 a.m. Spanish peninsular time) after an agreement on the matter between the two leaders.
The lines had been cut on June 9 of last year, when North Korea announced the disconnection in protest at the sending, by groups of defectors, of propaganda pamphlets to the North. Pyongyang accused the Moon government of not doing enough to prevent such acts.
In the exchange of letters since April, explains the Blue House, both leaders “agreed to reestablish the lines of communication as a priority.” The first to recover have been those corresponding, in the South, to the Ministry of Unification – responsible for relations with the North – and to Defense. According to the Ministry of Unification, both parties have agreed to communicate in two daily calls, one at nine in the morning and the other at five in the afternoon.
The South Korean presidency has also specified that the letters were sent to commemorate the third anniversary of the Panmunjom summit in April 2018 between the two leaders. That meeting, in which the image of both holding hands and crossing the border between the two countries went around the world, culminating a thawing process between the two countries after a 2017 in which ballistic missile tests multiplied North Koreans.
That process opened the door to negotiations between North Korea and the US administration of Donald Trump on the denuclearization of the North Korean peninsula, which precipitated three meetings between the then US president and Kim Jong-un. The first summit, in Singapore in June 2018, was historic in nature as it was the first ever held between the top leaders of the two enemy countries. The second, in Hanoi in February 2019 and for which Moon had volunteered as a mediator, ended in a resounding failure. The third, improvised in Panmunjom on June 30, 2019 and without an agenda, was no more than an anecdote. Since then, the talks between Pyongyang and Washington have stalled. The Korean bilaterals gradually deteriorated despite the calls of Moon, who has made the approach to the North one of the pillars of his mandate.
So far, and despite the commitment of steps to improve the relationship, the new contacts between the two Koreas have not addressed the possibility of a new summit, either in person or by videoconference. Nor, according to the Blue House, is the trip of any envoy to the northern neighbor due, among other reasons, to the coronavirus pandemic.
North Korea has kept its borders tightly closed since the beginning of the pandemic. Although so far he has not recognized any case of covid in his territory, in June Kim Jong-un publicly criticized the behavior of some officials in what he described as “a serious incident”, according to the official KCNA agency, related to the virus. Kim has also recognized throughout this year the failure of the previous five-year plan and a “tense food situation” due to the pandemic and severe floods that the country suffered last year.