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A direct communication channel between South and North Korea was reopened on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of South Korea's Unification Ministry)   © Kyodo
North Korea Crisis

Revived Korean border hotline stirs hopes, suspicions

Seoul welcomes direct lines of communication while Washington remains wary

SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- The revival of a critical hotline between North and South Korea could propel the two sides toward dialogue in the coming weeks, though the U.S. is concerned the goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula could take a back seat to discussions over matters such as the Olympics.

The two sides have reopened a line of communication based in the border village of Panmunjom, Seoul's Unification Ministry said Wednesday. Ri Son Gwon, chief of Pyongyang's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, announced via state media that leader Kim Jong Un had ordered the reopening.

The North placed a 20-minute call to the South around 3:30 p.m. Seoul time on Wednesday. This allowed both sides to confirm that the connection was sound. Phone and fax capability are functioning as normal, according to the South's Unification Ministry. While no further business is thought to have been conducted on Wednesday, South Korea's presidential Blue House called the channel's return highly significant, as it provides a means for dialogue at any time.

Of the 42 direct communication lines between the North and South, 33 are based in Panmunjom, which sits on the heavily guarded North-South border. These channels have helped Pyongyang and Seoul diffuse military tensions in the past and find points of compromise at moments of crisis. They have also been severed repeatedly during the countries' history of conflict: North Korea shut down the line restored Wednesday in February 2016 after the South shuttered a jointly operated industrial complex in the Northern town of Kaesong.

Turning point

In his New Year's address, Kim offered to launch discussions with the South over sending a North Korean delegation to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has responded favorably. Kim is pleased and has directed government agencies to work with Seoul in good faith, Ri said. Seoul on Tuesday proposed holding inter-Korean talks Jan. 9, and Pyongyang seems eager to build momentum toward such a discussion.

For the first time since Moon's administration began last year, state media in the North have referred to him as South Korea's president, rather than simply its ruler, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported Wednesday.

But Pyongyang also seems to be angling for the lead in whatever talks are to come. Ri insisted the two sides would "discuss working-level issues over our potential dispatch of the delegation." Without indicating whether the North would agree to the Jan. 9 meeting, he noted that "whether inter-Korean ties can be improved totally depends on North and South Korea."

If talks come to fruition, the North could demand that the South halt joint military exercises with the U.S. Kim made reference to these regular maneuvers in his New Year's Day speech, leading some to interpret his call for dialogue as an attempt to disrupt the alliance between Seoul and Washington. The Moon government's response to Pyongyang's shift in tone thus holds implications for the broader U.S.-South Korea-Japan security alliance in East Asia.

Same objective

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha discussed these developments with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over the phone Wednesday, according to the Foreign Ministry in Seoul. The American official urged his counterpart to keep North Korea's abandonment of nuclear weapons the top priority in any talks.

The two sides agreed to continue cooperating on diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear issue peacefully, according to the ministry. But the North's sudden turn toward dialogue seems to have put Washington on guard. "We won't take any of the talks seriously if they don't do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea," Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Tuesday.

"North Korea can talk with anyone they want, but the U.S. is not going to recognize it or acknowledge it until they agree to ban the nuclear weapons that they have," she said. If the North tests yet another missile, "we must bring even more measures to bear" on Pyongyang, Haley said.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Tuesday that "our policy on North Korea hasn't changed at all."

"Our alliance and friendship with South Korea remains stronger than it ever has been," she said, adding that the U.S. is "going to continue to work with South Korea to put maximum pressure on North Korea" to denuclearize.

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