North Korea and South Korea restore communications on Armistice Day anniversary

Reopening of hotlines is 'a big stride in recovering the mutual trust and promoting reconciliation'

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South and North Korea have restored their once-severed hotlines as part of efforts by the two countries' leaders to rebuild strained ties, says Seoul's presidential Blue House.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have exchanged multiple letters since April and agreed to reconnect the hotlines, said Mr Moon's press secretary, Park Soo-hyun, on Tuesday.

North Korea's state media outlet, KCNA, also said all inter-Korean communication channels resumed operations at 10am on Tuesday in line with an agreement between Mr Moon and Mr Kim.

"The two leaders have explored ways to recover relations by exchanging letters on several occasions, and agreed to restore severed hotlines as a first step for that process," Mr Park said. "They have also agreed to regain trust as soon as possible and foster progress on relations again."

KCNA touted the reopening of the hotlines as "a big stride in recovering the mutual trust and promoting reconciliation."

North Korea cut the hotlines in June 2020 as cross-border ties soured after a failed second summit in February 2019 between Kim and former US president Donald Trump, which Mr Moon had offered to mediate.

Mr Moon has called for a revival of the hotline and talks, pinning high hopes on US President Joe Biden to restart negotiations aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes.

The effort to thaw relations came on the 68th anniversary of the armistice that halted fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War, a conflict that has never formally ended.

Last week, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman reaffirmed President Joe Biden’s openness to talks during a visit to Seoul in which she met South Korean officials, including Mr Moon.

“The fact that North Korea also officially acknowledged the restoration of the communications lines is positive, as is the language in the North Korean readout,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a nonresident fellow with the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center.

“It appears that Pyongyang may be gearing up to resume some level of diplomacy with South Korea, but it’s premature to draw any conclusions about whether the restoration of the communications lines will lead to any tangible results.”

South Korea’s presidential office later said there was no discussion of a possible summit between Mr Moon and Mr Kim.

The White House and US State Department didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment sent after normal business hours. Japan’s top government spokesman, Katsunobu Kato, told reporters Tokyo is watching the situation while China welcomed the news and supports dialogue between the two Koreas to improve relations, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

Until now, Mr Kim has shown little interest in talks since his last meeting with Mr Moon and Donald Trump in the demilitarised zone dividing the peninsula in June 2019.

His diplomatic window may be closing. Mr Moon leaves office in May and opinion polls suggest voters are open to replacing him with a conservative leader, who might take a more hawkish tone.

“Pyongyang definitely prefers someone who would prioritise North Korea issue over others,” said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a professor in international relations at King’s College London.

South Korea’s military also said it planned to restore its regular communications with northern forces. They’ll exchange information twice a day, at 9am and 4pm, including details about illegal fishing in the Yellow Sea, the South Korean military said.

Updated: July 27, 2021, 1:35 PM