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Koreas reopen lines shut for year

North, South agree to communicate again, improve relations by The Associated Press | July 28, 2021 at 4:31 a.m.
Pyongyang citizens holding North Korean flags watch a performance by an art troupe in front of the Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, to mark the Korean War armistice anniversary. The leaders of North and South Korea restored suspended communication channels between them and agreed to improve ties, both governments said Tuesday, amid a 2 ½ year-stalemate in U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons. (AP Photo/Cha Song Ho)

SEOUL, South Korea -- North and South Korea exchanged messages Tuesday in communication channels that have been dormant for more than a year and agreed to improve ties -- positive steps but ones that still leave any resumption of stalled negotiations to rid the North of its nuclear weapons a long way off.

Liaison officials from the Koreas had several phone conversations including one on a military hotline and agreed to resume speaking regularly, Seoul officials said. The rivals use the channels to lay out their positions on issues and even propose broader dialogue, and the links also are critical to preventing any accidental clashes along their disputed sea boundary.

While the renewed communication could help ease tensions across the world's most heavily fortified border, it's only a small first step. Pyongyang is unlikely to revive vigorous cooperation programs with Seoul or get back to the nuclear talks led by the United States anytime soon. Some experts say North Korea is instead aiming to improve ties with South Korea in the hopes of persuading the U.S. to make concessions when nuclear diplomacy with Washington eventually does resume.

Those efforts have been stalled for more than two years by wrangling over punishing U.S.-led sanctions on the North. During the diplomatic impasse, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has threatened to enlarge his nuclear arsenal if the U.S. doesn't abandon its hostile policy, an apparent reference to the sanctions.

On Tuesday, the two Koreas announced their leaders -- Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in -- have traded personal letters several times since April and decided in those exchanges to resume communication in the channels.

Moon's office said the two leaders agreed to "restore mutual confidence and develop their relationships again as soon as possible." The North's state media, for its part, said Kim and Moon agreed to "make a big stride in recovering the mutual trust and promoting reconciliation by restoring the cutoff inter-Korean communication liaison lines."

Tuesday's resumption of communication takes place on the 68th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, which pitted South Korea and U.S.-led U.N. forces against North Korea and China. That armistice has yet to be replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula in a technical state of war, with about 28,500 U.S. troops still stationed in South Korea.

North Korea occasionally cuts off communication in the channels -- by not replying to South Korean phone calls or faxes -- in times of tensions with Seoul and Washington.

The most recent cutoff happened in June of last year after North Korea accused the South of failing to stop activists from floating anti-Pyongyang leaflets across their border. An angry North Korea later blew up an empty South Korean-built liaison office just north of the countries' border.

The U.S. sanctions, together with storms last summer and border shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic, are battering the isolated North's economy, creating what Kim called its "worst-ever" crisis. Still, outside monitoring groups haven't seen signs of mass starvation or social chaos in the country of 26 million people.

Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University, said the resumed communication likely won't lead to a dramatic improvement in ties in the near term -- but could pave the way for something down the road.

"North Korea knows it has to sit down for talks with the Biden administration one day. It thinks South Korea still has an effective value ... to make [President Joe] Biden move" in a direction that it favors, said Nam. "North Korea can also build up an [international image] that it's willing to continue dialogue" with the outside world.

Senior South Korean presidential official Park Soo Hyun said later Tuesday that Seoul believes improved ties between the Koreas would help restart the stalled nuclear diplomacy.

Moon, who espouses greater reconciliation with North Korea, earlier shuttled between Pyongyang and Washington to facilitate a 2018 summit between Kim and then-U.S. President Donald Trump -- the first such meeting between the countries' leaders. But North Korea abruptly gave Moon the cold shoulder after a second proposed Kim-Trump summit fell apart in early 2019 after Trump rebuffed Kim's push to win extensive sanctions relief in return for dismantling his main nuclear complex.

Since taking office in January, Biden's administration has called on North Korea to return to a negotiating table. But last month senior North Korean officials, including Kim's powerful sister, dismissed prospects for an early resumption of the talks.

Some experts think North Korea may be compelled to reach out to the U.S. or South Korea if its economic difficulties worsen. By taking steps to improve relations with Seoul now, the North may be preparing for that moment.

Pyongyang citizens visit the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, July 27, 2021 to mark the Korean War armistice anniversary. The leaders of North and South Korea restored suspended communication channels between them and agreed to improve ties, both governments said Tuesday, amid a 2 ½ year-stalemate in U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)
Pyongyang citizens visit the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, July 27, 2021 to mark the Korean War armistice anniversary. The leaders of North and South Korea restored suspended communication channels between them and agreed to improve ties, both governments said Tuesday, amid a 2 ½ year-stalemate in U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)
An art troupe performs in front of the Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, to mark the Korean War armistice anniversary. The leaders of North and South Korea restored suspended communication channels between them and agreed to improve ties, both governments said Tuesday, amid a 2 ½ year-stalemate in U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons. (AP Photo/Cha Song Ho)
An art troupe performs in front of the Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, to mark the Korean War armistice anniversary. The leaders of North and South Korea restored suspended communication channels between them and agreed to improve ties, both governments said Tuesday, amid a 2 ½ year-stalemate in U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons. (AP Photo/Cha Song Ho)
Korean People's Army officers visit the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, July 27, 2021 to mark the Korean War armistice anniversary. The leaders of North and South Korea restored suspended communication channels between them and agreed to improve ties, both governments said Tuesday, amid a 2 ½ year-stalemate in U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons. (AP Photo/Cha Song Ho)
Korean People's Army officers visit the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, July 27, 2021 to mark the Korean War armistice anniversary. The leaders of North and South Korea restored suspended communication channels between them and agreed to improve ties, both governments said Tuesday, amid a 2 ½ year-stalemate in U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons. (AP Photo/Cha Song Ho)
A man holds up a banner to demand the peace on the Korean peninsula near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, July 27, 2021. South Korea says the leaders of North and South Korea have agreed to restore suspended communication channels and improve ties. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
A man holds up a banner to demand the peace on the Korean peninsula near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, July 27, 2021. South Korea says the leaders of North and South Korea have agreed to restore suspended communication channels and improve ties. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
Pyongyang citizens visit the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, July 27, 2021 to mark the Korean War armistice anniversary. The leaders of North and South Korea restored suspended communication channels between them and agreed to improve ties, both governments said Tuesday, amid a 2 ½ year-stalemate in U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)
Pyongyang citizens visit the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, July 27, 2021 to mark the Korean War armistice anniversary. The leaders of North and South Korea restored suspended communication channels between them and agreed to improve ties, both governments said Tuesday, amid a 2 ½ year-stalemate in U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)
Citizens lay bouquets of flowers at the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, to mark the Korean War armistice anniversary. The leaders of North and South Korea restored suspended communication channels between them and agreed to improve ties, both governments said Tuesday, amid a 2 ½ year-stalemate in U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)
Citizens lay bouquets of flowers at the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, to mark the Korean War armistice anniversary. The leaders of North and South Korea restored suspended communication channels between them and agreed to improve ties, both governments said Tuesday, amid a 2 ½ year-stalemate in U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)
FILE - In this April 27, 2018, file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, poses with South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a photo inside the Peace House at the border village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone, South Korea. The presidential office in Seoul said Tuesday, July 27, 2021, Moon and Kim have agreed to restore suspended communication channels and improve ties. (Korea Summit Press Pool via AP, File)
FILE - In this April 27, 2018, file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, poses with South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a photo inside the Peace House at the border village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone, South Korea. The presidential office in Seoul said Tuesday, July 27, 2021, Moon and Kim have agreed to restore suspended communication channels and improve ties. (Korea Summit Press Pool via AP, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 3, 2018, file photo released by South Korea Unification Ministry, a South Korean government official communicates with a North Korean officer during a phone call on the dedicated communications hotline at the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea. North and South Korea on Tuesday, July 27, 2021, have restored suspended communication channels between them and their leaders agreed to improve ties, both governments said Tuesday, despite a two years and a half stalemate in U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons. (South Korea Unification Ministry/Yonhap via AP, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 3, 2018, file photo released by South Korea Unification Ministry, a South Korean government official communicates with a North Korean officer during a phone call on the dedicated communications hotline at the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea. North and South Korea on Tuesday, July 27, 2021, have restored suspended communication channels between them and their leaders agreed to improve ties, both governments said Tuesday, despite a two years and a half stalemate in U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons. (South Korea Unification Ministry/Yonhap via AP, File)
In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, front center, offers a flower at a liberation war martyrs cemetery in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, July 27, 2021 to mark the end of the Korean War. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. Korean language watermark on image as provided by source reads: "KCNA" which is the abbreviation for Korean Central News Agency. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)
In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, front center, offers a flower at a liberation war martyrs cemetery in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, July 27, 2021 to mark the end of the Korean War. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. Korean language watermark on image as provided by source reads: "KCNA" which is the abbreviation for Korean Central News Agency. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

Print Headline: Koreas reopen lines shut for year

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