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North and South Korea reopen cross-border hotline, paving the way for formal talks

  • Author: Simon Denyer, The Washington Post
  • Updated: January 3
  • Published January 2

Soldiers stand guard outside meeting rooms that straddle the border between North and South Korea in Panmunjom along the Demilitarized Zone, April 19, 2017. (Lam Yik Fei / The New York Times)

BEIJING – North and South Korea reopened a long suspended cross-border hotline on Wednesday, conducting a brief conversation to pave the way for official talks between the two sides about sending a delegation from the North to next month's Winter Olympics in the South.

Talks, if they take place, would mark the first formal dialogue between the two sides since December 2015, while the hotline has been dormant since February 2016. They could yield an easing of tensions after a year of nuclear and missile tests, hostile rhetoric and the real risk of war. But U.S. officials and experts have reacted cautiously and skeptically, doubting the sincerity of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

North Korea had earlier in the day announced the channel would be reopened. The South's Unification Ministry then announced that officials from the North had called using the hotline at the shared border village of Panmunjom on Wednesday afternoon. Officials first tested the line and held a conversation for around 20 minutes, it said, according to news agencies.

The announcement follows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's offer on Monday to open a dialogue with South Korea over the North's participation in the Winter Olympics, which begin Feb. 9.

South Korea responded by proposing talks as early as next Tuesday in Panmunjom, which straddles the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas. The reopening of the hotline is meant to establish arrangements for this formal dialogue.

"The restoration of the hotline is very significant," said South Korea's chief presidential press secretary, Yoon Young-chan, according to news agencies. "It creates an environment where communication will be possible at all times."

Ri Son Gwon, chairman of North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification, said his country hoped the Winter Olympics would be a success.

"We will try to keep close communications with the South Korean side from a sincere stand and honest attitude, true to the intention of our supreme leadership, and deal with the practical matters related to the dispatch of our delegation," he said, according to the North's official KCNA news agency.

China urged both sides to use the Winter Olympics as an opportunity to improve ties.

"We believe all relevant parties in this issue should seize this positive turn of events in the situation on the peninsula," spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news conference. "China would like to play a constructive and positive role in bringing this situation back to the right track of peaceful settlement, work for the denuclearization of the peninsula and long-term peace and stability on the peninsula."

However, there is no guarantee talks would find common ground between the two sides, nor lead to any lasting upturn in ties. Experts warned that North Korea was most likely borrowing from a well-worn playbook, hoping to win relief from sanctions and buy time to improve its nuclear program without offering any real concessions. Efforts to improve North Korea's behavior by promoting sporting or cultural links have always failed in the past.

U.S. officials said they doubt Kim's sincerity but declared that Washington would not stand in the way, nor would it allow the North to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States.

In an indication of the possible hurdles that lay ahead, South Korea's Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon warned Tuesday that North Korea could demand "different treatment," apparently as a nuclear power, if the talks do take place.

North Korea has refused to pick up the hotline since 2016 in retaliation for the closure of an industrial complex jointly operated by the two sides that provided much-needed revenue for the North. Relations have deteriorated as North Korea has accelerated its nuclear and missile program with frequent tests.

Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Tuesday that the United States is hearing reports that North Korea might be preparing for another missile test, warning that such action would necessitate tougher steps against Pyongyang.

In a New Year's Day speech, Kim said he wanted to ease tensions with the South, but also told the Trump administration that a "nuclear button" was on his desk and his missiles could strike any part of the United States.

Trump responded with a threat of his own Tuesday evening.

"Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!," he wrote on Twitter.

Asked about Trump's comments, China's Geng urged "all the relevant parties" to exercise restraint and do more to ease tensions on the peninsula.

Some analysts cautioned that Kim may be trying to split South Korea from the United States, its ally. Trump and Moon have not been on the best of terms, and Trump has attacked Kim, personally and repeatedly.

Yet Trump did not appear to be disconcerted by Kim's move. He said on Twitter that sanctions and other pressure "are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea," citing the defection of two soldiers from the North across the demilitarized zone into the South in recent weeks.

And while Moon welcomed Kim's address, he stressed that Seoul would have to coordinate the next steps with its allies, according to the Yonhap news agency.

At the State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday that "Kim Jong Un may be trying to drive a wedge of some sort between the two nations, between our nation and the Republic of Korea. I can assure you that that will not happen." She said it is up to South Korea if it wants to open talks with the North. But, she added, "we are very skeptical of Kim Jong Un's sincerity in sitting down and having talks."

"I think in the interim there'll be a temporary reduction in tensions, but ultimately this is going to fail, and it's not going to open up some big chasm between Washington and Seoul," said Evan Medeiros, who was the National Security Council's Asia director in the Obama administration and now heads the Eurasia Group's coverage of the Asia-Pacific region.

Kim said Monday that he wants to improve the "frozen" relations between the two Koreas and would "open our doors to anyone" from the South who sincerely sought national concord and unity.

"We earnestly wish the Olympic Games a success," he said, according to the North's official KCNA news agency. "From this point of view we are willing to dispatch our delegation and adopt other necessary measures; with regard to this matter, the authorities of the North and the South may meet together soon."

After Moon asked his government to move as quickly as possible to bring North Korea to the Olympics, Cho wasted no time in trying to pin down a date.

"We look forward to candidly discussing interests from both sides face to face with North Korea, along with the North's participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics," Cho said. "I repeat, the government is open to talking with North Korea, regardless of time, location and form."

Talks could offer an opportunity to dial down tensions on the Korean Peninsula, after a year when war emerged as a real risk.

China's Foreign Ministry welcomed what it called "positive steps" by both sides and said it hoped they would "take advantage of this opportunity and make concrete efforts in improving bilateral ties, and realize denuclearization of the peninsula," according to spokesman Geng Shuang.

But a sticking point has been a planned joint military exercise with the United States, which North Korea sees as preparation for war. Moon has asked Washington for a postponement until after the Olympics, but no agreement has been reached.

Daniel Russel, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asia under President Barack Obama and is now a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said Kim's aim is to "divide and conquer."

"Kim wants to unwind sanctions and clearly sees President Moon's angst over the Olympics as the weak link in the allied chain," he said. "Diplomacy is always the preferred option, and this opening should be explored carefully. But it would be naive to expect North Korea to negotiate in good faith or consider itself bound by new agreements, given its past record."

Russel said the North Korean leader's behavior fit into a familiar pattern, with the threat of the "nuclear button" on Kim's desk combined with the "enticement" of talks.

"Pyongyang's pattern is to raise tensions to a fever pitch, dangle a conciliatory offer, collect any and all concessions, then rinse and repeat," he said. "The key to disrupting this pattern and compelling North Korea into credible negotiations over its nuclear program – which is the goal of the sanctions – is maintaining unity between the U.S. and South Korea, as well as Japan, China and Russia."

Medeiros argued that North Korea was trying to seek some sanctions relief as international pressure mounts and was "playing for time" as it works on improving its intercontinental ballistic missile program.

It is far from clear what terms Kim might try to attach to talks or what he would bring to the table, said Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Is his government prepared, for example, to announce a suspension of nuclear and missile tests? "Because if they don't, I don't see any realistic possibility of any kind of discussion, and certainly not a negotiation with the North," he said.

Kim's declaration Monday that he had achieved his goal of creating a nuclear deterrent capable of reaching the United States could be the platform for such a suspension, experts say. But they also point out that his statement was effectively a bluff: The North has demonstrated that it could probably deliver a ballistic missile to the United States but not that it could weaponize such a missile with a nuclear warhead, and it would need more tests to demonstrate that ability.

The idea of North Korea attending the Winter Olympics is also not one that meets universal approval.

"The international community was appalled by South Africa's apartheid regime and banned the country from participating in Olympics," said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation. "But in response to North Korea's far more egregious human rights violations – which the United Nations has ruled to be 'crimes against humanity' – the world allows and even encourages North Korea to participate. Why the double standard?"

Klingner said there is a long history of failed attempts to moderate North Korean behavior by entreating Pyongyang to participate in sporting and other cultural events. He recalled the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when the two Koreas marched behind a single non-national flag in return for secret payments to the North and other concessions – a symbolic gesture that failed to improve Pyongyang's behavior.

"Yet with each new attempt there is breathless anticipation that this time will work," he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the United States should boycott the Olympics if North Korea attends.

"Allowing Kim Jong Un's North Korea to participate in #WinterOlympics would give legitimacy to the most illegitimate regime on the planet," he tweeted. "I'm confident South Korea will reject this absurd overture and fully believe that if North Korea goes to the Winter Olympics, we do not."

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Amber Ziye Wang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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