North Korea’s restoration of the dormant hotline with South Korea after the missile tests by Pyongyang may just be a tiny step towards reconciliation, though not a significant forward movement in the peninsula. The effort, it appears, is to secure external concessions by blending conciliatory gestures and missile tests ~ a geostrategic irony if ever there was one. It is still rather unclear whether the initiative will improve ties between the two Koreas not the least because the North has a history of using the hotlines as a bargaining chip in its fractious dealings with the South. It is a diplomatic gambit at best; a devious exercise in bilateral dealings at worst. Pyongyang has a record of unilaterally suspending the hotline on whim and then reactivating it when it needs to improve relations with its southern neighbour.
Suffice it to register that North Korean officials answered phone calls from their southern counterparts over a set of cross-border government and military channels on Monday, and for the first time in nearly two months. The tone of the interaction was indeed somewhat cordial. “Long time no talk. We’are very pleased because the communication channels have been restored. We hope North-South relations will develop to a new level,” was the core of the South Korean leader’s conversation with his counterpart in the North, according to a video released by South Korea’s Unification Ministry. The hope is easier imagined than accomplished.
Using a separate military channel, Pyongyang and Seoul exchanged data relating to fishing along their disputed western sea boundary to prevent skirmishes, according to the Defence ministry in Seoul. Several naval skirmishes between the two Koreas have occurred in the choppy region in the recent past. The restoration of the hotline will, it is hoped, lessen these and other tensions. The hotlines are actually phone and fax channels that the two Koreas use to arrange meetings and border crossings and also to avoid accidental clashes. The hotline was largely stalled for more than a year as the North snapped the connection in protest against the South Korean campaign through civilian leaflets.
The communication was revived all too briefly this summer. However, the North refused to exchange messages in the aftermath of Seoul’s annual military drills in league with Washington. Such drills, in the reckoning of the North, are what it calls an “invasion rehearsal”. Last week, the North Korean President, Kim Jong-un, had expressed his willingness to reactivate the communication channels, saying he wanted the Korean people’s wishes to promote peace attain fruition. Yet there are red herrings across the trail, evidenced through the periodic tests by the North. Such muscle-flexing and the counter-blasts from Seoul can cause irreparable harm to bilateral ties.