Prudence is neededInter-Korean communication lines have been restored 13 months after North Korea cut them after criticizing South Korea’s dispatching of propaganda leaflets across the border. The timing is delicate. The U.S. administration has just activated its Korean Peninsula policy and President Moon Jae-in has less than 10 month before he steps down next May.
First of all, we welcome the restoration of the telephone lines. If communication goes smoothly, inter-Korean cooperation on economic affairs and other things can follow. The communication lines were reestablished after exchanges of letters between Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Security experts link it to the need for President Moon to prepare for another summit with Kim before he leaves office.
North Korea may have agreed to restore the communication lines for several reasons, including the need for help from South Korea to overcome its worst-ever economic situation and the need to get humanitarian aid in an uphill battle against the pandemic. The recalcitrant state also likely wanted to make some gesture to Joe Biden’s administration to improve its relations with South Korea.
Whatever the background, Moon must keep in mind the following things. Above all, he must not hurry to make any kind of progress with North Korea before his term expires. A myopic approach can produce serious side effects. Moon must not seek political gains by improving inter-Korean relations ahead of the March 9, 2022 presidential election. That strategy will only backfire.
The Moon administration must take a careful approach before rushing to restore ties with North Korea. It unilaterally cut the communication lines on June 9, 2020 and blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong shortly afterward. That was a brazen provocation and violation of the Moon-Kim agreement in Pyongyang in 2018. Seoul must demand answers from Pyongyang about its position on those issues before putting relations back on track.
Also, South Korea must demand North Korea clearly explain the tragic killing of a South Korean fishery official in the West Sea last September and demand follow-up measures from North Korea not to repeat such a tragedy in the future. At that time, the Moon administration blamed the severance of the communication lines for its inability to discover the truth behind the murder and resolve the case. Now that the telephone lines are restored, the Moon administration should be able to do that.
Only after such problems are addressed are sincere inter-Korean talks and cooperation possible. Inter-Korean dialogue is only a means to prevent North Korea’s misjudgment and improve bilateral relations. Moon must not forget that when he pushes for rapprochement with Pyongyang.