Hopes for Peace Return in the Korean Peninsula as inter-Korean Military Hotlines re-established
Prof Rajaram Panda

The liberal and dovish South Korean President Moon Jae-in is a gutsy leader who does not easily give up to make peace with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, despite the latter’s maverick behaviour and unpredictable policy choices that once agreed can be easily overturned by his whims and tantrums. Moon played key roles in facilitating three summit meetings between former US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim. None succeeded. North Korea’s denuclearisation and missile development issues are there where they were before the first summit in Singapore in June 2018. The US can afford to toughen stance but South Korea as the immediate neighbour can be directly affected if any untoward incident takes place in the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, there are some doubts somewhere in the minds of the South Korean leadership about the continued reliance on the US’ extended nuclear deterrence. Seoul is also miffed by continuous pressure from Washington asking Seoul to share a larger security burden by way of paying more for the support of the US forces in the Korean bases for its defence.

Against this background, Moon’s peace overtures towards the North make sense despite the latter remaining unresponsive. After assiduous efforts, Moon was able to convince the North Korean leader Kim to re-establish direct military communication lines between the two sides in late July 2021, 13 months after Pyongyang cut them off in protest over anti-regime propaganda leaflets flying in from the South. After both sides agreed, the western channel became operational immediately but the eastern channel faced some technical glitches but hoped to be sorted out soon. The military hotlines facilitate daily liaison phone calls via both Western and Eastern lines in which both sides exchange information on illegal fishing boats in the Yellow Sea and coordinate so that accidental clashes are prevented. Moon is keen that ship-to-ship links that use the global merchant marine communication network may be added. At the time of writing this, Pyongyang has remained unresponsive.1 This shows Moon’s tasks are not done yet.

The news of both the Koreas restoring the hotline after a year on hold was first broken in a Reuter story on 27 July 2021. The report revealed that South Korea’s Blue House exchanged multiple of letters with Kim of North Korea since April, which led both sides agree to reconnect the hotlines.2 Unlike the earlier harsh response to any such peace overtures from the South, the official North Korean news agency KCNA reported the reopening of the hotlines as “a big stride in recovering the mutual trust and promoting reconciliation.” Indeed, restoring the hotlines signalled a thaw in inter-Korean relations.3

Following the June 2018 summit in Singapore, and Moon meeting Kim three times, there was a glimmer of hope that inter-Korean relations would again return to normal. However, when the US-DPRK summit in Hanoi ended without a deal in February 2019, inter-Korean relations quickly soured. Pyongyang quickly cut the hotlines in June 2020 as cross-border ties soured after a failed Hanoi summit, which Moon had offered to mediate. After Joe Biden succeeded Trump, Moon worked hard if negotiations could be restarted to work out a process by which North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes can be stopped. This decision to reconnect also marked the 68th anniversary of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

Both sides have set up 49 hotlines since 1970 as this medium is seen as a crucial route to prevent misunderstanding from military activities by either side, especially along their shared heavily fortified demilitarized zone at the 38th parallel line of Panmunjom. Nine of these are directly between the two countries’ militaries. The channels that were restored in late July are operated by the unification ministry and the military as priorities for now.4 Other objectives of maintaining hotlines have been to arrange diplomatic meetings, coordinate air and sea traffic, facilitate humanitarian discussions, minimise impacts from natural disasters and cooperate on economic issues.5 On several occasions whenever talks over dismantling nuclear and missile programmes failed, Pyongyang used this hotline as an instrument to retaliate by cutting off the channel. When the February 2019 Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim failed, Pyongyang severed the hotline links on 9 June 2020. Since then Moon had been trying to persuade Kim to restore and finally succeeded in late July when Kim positively responded. However, there is no guarantee that if things do not work to Kim’s expectations, the hotlines would not again be severed. On his part, with few months left for Moon’s tenure to end, he wants to leave his marks as an assiduous negotiator, no matters if he succeeded or failed. Till the day when North Korea blew up a joint liaison office launched in its border town of Kaesong in 20186, Seoul continued to try calling its Northern counterpart every day at the same times as agreed at 9 am and 4 pm, all without success.

It was not that the lines were physically cut but remained unresponsive from the North Korean side. Now they agreed to respond via the existing lines. Moon probably read Kim’s mind well when Kim apologised in a personal letter to him over an incident in September 2020 when North Korean soldiers shot and killed a South Korean government worker for crossing the inter-Korean military border. Moon probably felt that Kim is on the reconciliation mood.

Being encouraged by the perceived positive response from Kim, Moon went to the next step by seeking video conference system with North Korea. The unification ministry sent document on this proposal. Pyongyang is yet to respond.7

However, it would be premature to be over optimistic given Kim’s mercurial tendencies. There could be several roadblocks ahead. First, both sides need to identify on what projects they can cooperate and work on under the sanctions regime. Despite that the US and China have failed to find common grounds on the Korean issues, both welcomed the surprise restoration of the hotlines and supported the intention to resume dialogue.8 This did not deter analyst Aidan Foster-Carter to opine that in the diplomacy with North Korea, South Korean diplomacy under Moon was painfully one-sided.9

Foster-Carter’s remarks could be prophetic when days after the news of restoring the hotlines between the two sides, Kim’s younger sister and de facto No.2 in North Korea power structure, Kim Yo Jong warned that upcoming US-South Korea annual military drills scheduled to start from 10 August could jeopardise Pyongyang’s talks with Seoul and a Moon-Kim summit unlikely to happen, at least in the short term. Yo Jong accused the Blue House of “inflating the significance” of restoring hotlines and called Seoul’s interpretation of the development “hasty”.10 The timings and scale of the drills are yet to be announced. Pyongyang’s response could be harsher if the scale is going to be big.
Yo Jong is a prominent face in North Korea and it was she who ordered blowing up of the liaison office in June 2020 and her warning cannot be dismissed easily. She does not want North Korea getting trapped in the game plan Washington might be hatching to use Moon for a breakthrough on the nuclear issue without reciprocal concessions.11 Pyongyang wants Seoul to scale down its relations with Washington as the first step to regain mutual trust. The main bone of contention is the US-South Korea annual military drills, which Pyongyang perceives as rehearsal for invasion. Since the drills were cancelled in the first half of 2020 because of the pandemic and both sides held computer simulation exercises in August 2020 and March 2021, Pyongyang felt these were measures to respond if a crisis develops in the Peninsula.

Two issues that could unfold in the coming months shall have a lot of bearing on what transpires in the nuclear diplomacy in the Korean peninsula. One, Moon’s term ends in May 2022. Though he is a liberal and helped broker summit meetings between Trump and Kim true to his image of an advocate of reconciliation, it is premature at this point to forecast shape of South Korea’s domestic politics in May next year. But some opinion polls held recently in Seoul that suggest replacing Moon with a conservative leader, who might take a more hawkish stance. The South Koreans could probably feel that Moon’s liberal approach did not result in any tangible outcome and therefore a conservative could be a better option. Should that happen, the second issue becomes more important. Biden’s return to Obama-era of strategic patience could be given, for he would be unlikely to mess up things further. The indirect outcome could be Kim Jong-un shall continue to have a free rein on pursuing his nuclear and missile development programmes. In private discussion, my South Korean friends tell me that Kim Jong-un would not ever change his policies and strategies. Beijing would be merely laughing and rejoicing at the misery of Washington and Seoul if this scenario does in fact unfold. Both Beijing and Pyongyang would not hesitate to inflict more pain to their adversaries as Beijing has bigger goals to achieve and settle score with Washington.

  1. “Inter-Korean military hotlines back to normal operation: defense ministry”, Korea Herald, 29 July 2021, http://news.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20210729000439
  2. “South and North Korea restore hotline after a year on hold”, 27 July 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/27/south-and-north-korea-restore-hotline-after-a-year-on-hold
  3. Choe Sang-Hun “North and South Korea Reopen Communication Hotlines After a Tense 14 Months”, 27 July 2021, HTTPS://WWW.NYTIMES.COM/2021/07/27/WORLD/ASIA/NORTH-KOREA-SOUTH-REOPEN-HOTLINES.HTML
  4. Jeongmin Kim and Won-Gi Jung, “Seoul announces hotline communications breakthrough with Pyongyang”, 26 July 2021, https://www.nknews.org/2021/07/seoul-announces-hotline-communications-breakthrough-with-pyongyang/
  5. Hyonhee Shin, “What we know about inter-Korean hotlines, unique symbol for testy ties”, Deccan Herald, 27 July 2021, https://www.deccanherald.com/international/world-news-politics/what-we-know-about-inter-korean-hotlines-the-unique-symbol-for-testy-ties-1013315.html; https://nationalpost.com/pmn/health-pmn/what-we-know-about-inter-korean-hotlines-unique-symbol-for-testy-ties
  6. See, Rajaram Panda, “Tensions Return to the Korean Peninusula”, 19 June 2020, https://www.vifindia.org/2020/june/19/tensions-return-to-the-korean-peninsula
  7. Jeonmin Kim “Seoul seeks video calls with North Korea days after reconnecting hotlines”, 2 August 2021, https://www.nknews.org/2021/08/seoul-seeks-video-calls-with-north-korea-week-after-reconnecting-hotlines/
  8. Chaewon Chung , “Washington, Beijing welcome surprise restoration of inter-Korean hotlines”, July 27, 2021, https://www.nknews.org/2021/07/washington-beijing-welcome-surprise-restoration-of-inter-korean-hotlines/
  9. Aidan Foster-Carter “In diplomacy with North Korea, Moon Jae-in dances alone”, 28 July 2021, https://www.nknews.org/2021/07/in-diplomacy-with-north-korea-moon-jae-in-dances-alone/
  10. Colin Zwirko, “Kim Yo Jong slams US-South Korea joint drills, casts doubt on leader summit”, 1 August 2021, https://www.nknews.org/2021/08/kim-yo-jong-slams-us-south-korea-joint-drills-casts-doubt-on-leader-summit/
  11. Peter Pae, “North Korea threatens week-old detente over U.S.-led exercises”, The Japan Times, 2 August 2021, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/08/02/asia-pacific/north-korea-us-led-exercises/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

Image Source: https://www.oneindia.com/img/2017/07/moon-jae-in-kim-jong-un-21-1500612563.jpg

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