[News analysis] Will Moon, Kim’s correspondence lead to substantive results in inter-Korean relations?

Posted on : 2021-07-28 17:20 KST Modified on : 2021-07-28 17:20 KST
If South and North Korea can get past the South’s military exercises with the US, this could open up new possibilities for dialogue and cooperation
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un cross the military demarcation line while holding hands at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone on April 27, 2018. (pool photo)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un cross the military demarcation line while holding hands at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone on April 27, 2018. (pool photo)

With the 68th anniversary of the Armistice Agreement bringing up memories of the agonies of the Korean War, the announcement that day of the restoration of inter-Korean hotlines could be seen as a long-awaited rainfall after an extended drought.

It’s still too early to tell, however, whether that shower will be a life-giving force that moistened the parched earth and helps peace to flower again on the peninsula or whether it will be inadequate to stave off the raging heat.

Purely in technical terms, the restoration of the inter-Korean hotlines Tuesday was simply a matter of North Korea reverting to the status quo before June 9 of last year, when it unilaterally closed down all liaison channels over the scattering of propaganda leaflets by defector groups in the South.

Even before the hotlines were shut down, however, inter-Korean relations had already been in rickety shape following the collapse of the second North Korea-US summit in Hanoi in February 2019. Not a single meeting of South and North Korean authorities has taken place since Dec. 14, 2018, when a sports subcommittee meeting took place at the erstwhile inter-Korean joint liaison office in Kaesong.

But it also should not be overlooked that the hotline restoration was the first joint step taken by the two sides after direct communication between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who had exchanged around a dozen letters over a period of a little over three months.

Particularly noteworthy was the North’s news report stating that Moon and Kim had “agreed to make a big stride in recovering the mutual trust and promoting reconciliation.”

While it had not been made public, Moon remained in communication with the North behind the scenes after sending correspondence on the third anniversary of the two sides’ Panmunjom Declaration on April 27, 2018. He also explored avenues for the two sides to restart the Korean Peninsula peace process through various official meetings, including a possible South Korea-US summit.

In a summit with US President Joe Biden in Washington on May 21, Moon scored an achievement in terms of broader autonomy in inter-Korean relations when he reaffirmed Washington’s “support for inter-Korean dialogue, engagement, and cooperation,” according to the two leaders’ joint statement.

At a third plenary meeting of the 8th Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee on June 17, Kim shared his first public remarks about the Korean Peninsula situation since Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration, stressing the need for “concentrating efforts on taking stable control of the situation on the Korean peninsula.”

This could be read as placing more emphasis on agency in inter-Korean relations than the more reactive, passive attitude Pyongyang showed toward Washington at the 8th WPK Congress in January, where it stressed the principle of “power for power and goodwill for goodwill.” It also reflects the attitude toward Seoul expressed at the same congress, where it emphasized the need for “proactive measures to redress and improve the present north-south relations facing a catastrophe.”

From a broader perspective, the decision could be read as a strategic effort to salvage the achievements of Kim’s three inter-Korean summits in 2018 with Moon — who has just ten months left in his term — with the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration, the Sept. 19 Pyongyang Joint Declaration, and the Sept. 19 military agreement. At the same time, it could be seen as a final form of cooperation to allow the leaders to achieve a political breakthrough on their own initiative.

But analysts also cautioned against being too optimistic.

Numerous veterans closely acquainted with inter-Korean relations agreed that a “judicious solution” to the issue of imminent South Korea-US joint military exercises in August will be needed if this “final cooperation” between Moon and Kim is to pay off in terms of breaking through the current deadlock on the peninsula and getting the peace process back in motion.

Their advice is that Moon would be better off making the decision to suspend the exercises, perhaps using the recent global resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic with the Delta variant of the virus as an excuse. Some also stressed the need for patience on Kim’s part if Moon sees no other option but to go ahead with a substantially downscaled command post-exercise.

If South and North can get past the obstacle posed by the exercises, this could open up new possibilities for dialogue and cooperation, including a resumption of humanitarian assistance with food and pandemic response efforts.

At the latest South Korea-US summit, Biden indicated support for promoting humanitarian aid and inter-Korean dialogue, engagement, and cooperation. Depending on how the situation unfolds, the possibility of a video summit between Moon and Kim cannot be ruled out.

“While the possibility of an in-person meeting between [Moon and Kim] is low due to the spread of the Delta COVID-19 variant, we may set a target of having a videoconference as we discuss various necessary things following this hotline restoration,” a Blue House official told the Hankyoreh on Tuesday.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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