Tuesday 23 July 2019

Kim uses 'hotline' to open talks with Seoul

Kim Jong-un. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Kim Jong-un. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Nicola Smith

North Korea called South Korea yesterday on a hotline that had previously remained dormant for two years, in a major diplomatic breakthrough that could pave the way towards future peace talks.

Pyongyang's state-run TV station reported yesterday that the inter-Korean communications channel in the shared border village of Panmunjom would be opened at 3pm.

This was confirmed by South Korea's unification ministry who said that the North made contact via the phone line at exactly the time ordered. "We have checked the communication line and are contacting each other," it said.

The breakthrough came despite an astonishing tweet late on Tuesday by US President Donald Trump, boasting that his "nuclear button" was bigger than North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un's.

"Will someone from his depleted and food-starved regime please inform him that I too have a nuclear button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my button works!" he wrote, to an aghast Twitter audience.

Kim's olive branch to the South followed a New Year's Day speech in which he said he was "open to dialogue" with Seoul and to sending a team to South Korea's Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games in February.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in
South Korean President Moon Jae-in

His South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, responded positively to his overtures on Tuesday with a proposal for high level talks, calling it a "ground-breaking chance" to improve relations.

However, initial calls to the hotline, which was first established in 1972 and is maintained by the Red Cross, went unanswered for 48 hours, reported Seoul's unification ministry.

The North's silence was broken yesterday morning by Ri Son-gwon, the head of Pyongyang's agency handling inter-Korean affairs.

"By upholding a decision by the leadership, we will make close contact with South Korea in a sincere and faithful manner," he said. "We will discuss working-level issues over our potential dispatch of the delegation."

He did not specify whether the North would accept Seoul's offer for talks next Tuesday but said that Kim "highly appreciated and welcomed" President Moon's support of his peace offer.

The two nations, who are still technically on a war-footing, have not held a high-level dialogue since December 2015. Pyongyang then cut off the hotline in February 2016 in protest at Seoul's closure of the Kaesong joint industrial complex following a North Korean nuclear test.

Donald Trump. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Donald Trump. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

President Moon's press secretary called the restoration of the hotline "very significant".

In his New Year's speech, Kim spoke of lowering tensions and melting "frozen North-South relations".

Mr Trump appeared to take credit for early signs of a thaw in relations between the North and South, claiming that his pressure on Pyongyang with increased sanctions and threats of military actions was having a "big impact".

Mr Trump tweeted that "rocket man [Kim Jong-un] now wants to talk to South Korea for the first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not - we will see!"

Yesterday, Mr Trump also appeared to threaten to cut off aid money to the Palestinian Authority, asking why the US should make "any of these massive future payments" when the Palestinians are "no longer willing to talk peace".

Acknowledging his push to broker peace in the Middle East has stalled, Mr Trump tweeted: "We pay the Palestinians hundreds of millions of dollars a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don't even want to negotiate a long overdue ... peace treaty with Israel."

The tweet came after Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, threatened to cut aid to the UNRWA, the UN's agency for Palestinian refugees, unless the Palestinian leadership came back to the negotiating table.

Mr Trump infuriated Palestinians and Muslims across the Middle East when he announced late last year that the US would consider Jerusalem the capital of Israel and move its embassy there, upending decades of US policy and igniting protests.

While the Palestinians have not closed the door to a potential deal with Israel, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said the announcement had destroyed Mr Trump's credibility as a Middle East peace broker, calling the decision "a declaration of withdrawal from the role it has played in the peace process".

Irish Independent

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