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N Korea at crossroads

As food grows scarce, North Korea accepts South's olive branch

Moon and Kim start mending fences with return of hotlines after year of silence

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands during Moon's visit to Pyongyang in September 2018.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- With Tuesday's restoration of severed communication lines, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has accepted South Korean President Moon Jae-in's calls for re-engagement, returning to the table as his country struggles with a food shortage that is growing more severe.

On Tuesday, the 68th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War, South Korea's military and unification ministry brought hotlines back into operation after more than a year. The move came after multiple exchanges of letters between Moon and Kim since April, according to the South's presidential Blue House.

The North's Korean Central News Agency touted the decision as "a big stride in recovering the mutual trust and promoting reconciliation."

Pyongyang had cut off communication in June of last year in retaliation for North Korean defectors in the South launching balloons with anti-Kim leaflets across the border. At the direction of Kim's sister, Kim Yo Jong, the North destroyed a liaison office in the border town of Kaesong. All communication through official channels was halted thereafter.

Moon, with little time left to achieve his dream of reconciliation before his term as president ends next May, has scrambled to bring the two sides back together.

The president had hoped to use the Tokyo Olympics as an opportunity to break the diplomatic impasse, aiming to foster a positive international environment for dialogue, though he ultimately chose not to attend the opening ceremony. In May, he urged U.S. President Joe Biden to resume denuclearization talks with Pyongyang.

National Intelligence Service Director Park Jie-won proposed a four-way summit between the neighbors along with the U.S. and Japan during a visit to Tokyo last fall.

But Pyongyang, seeing Seoul as subservient to Washington, was not receptive to these overtures. In March, Kim Yo Jong responded to Moon's criticism of the North's ballistic missile launches by calling the president a "parrot raised by America."

The restoration of the hotlines represents an about-face that may be connected to the country's recent economic pain.

Since last year, the North has grappled with a triple whammy of economic sanctions, a suspension of trade with China due to the coronavirus pandemic, and damage from severe flooding. Unusually, Kim Jong Un acknowledged last month that the country's food situation was getting "tense," according to KCNA.

On top of that, reports from North Korea point to a severe drought this summer. The country had received just a quarter as much rain by mid-July as in an average year, the second-lowest tally in the last 40 years, KCNA said Monday.

The North's leadership had been set to resume trade with China, but with no end to the pandemic in sight, roads between the two countries remain closed.

The food crisis is believed to be affecting Kim's ability to govern the country. Observers have speculated that the leader's recent weight loss was an intentional bid to blunt public discontent with the shortages.

By repairing relations with the South, Kim "hopes for South Korea to be a leading voice in favor of lifting sanctions," said Cha Du-hyeogn, principal fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

The North Korean leader may also look to capitalize on the thaw to persuade Moon to halt or scale back annual joint military exercises with the U.S. coming up in August.

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