The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
There has been much hype over the reconnection of military communication lines between the two Koreas on July 27 after a 13-month stalemate. Some have raised hopes for an improvement in inter-Korean relations and possibly even another summit between the two leaders. But to quote a well-worn axiom, “One swallow does not make a spring.” Reconnecting telephone lines will only take us so far in our relationship with North Korea. There are too many other factors to consider.
That being said, there is significance to every step. There must be a motive behind Pyongyang’s change of mind. North Korea has often cut off communication lines on a whim citing various reasons ranging from South Korea’s backing of UN resolutions on human rights violations to sanctions over the torpedoing of the Cheonan warship. It has suddenly restored them for its own reasons as well.
North Korea has restored the lines five times since 2000. Except for one time, Pyongyang demanded physical aid upon restoring them. Amidst food shortages, it asked for rice aid from South Korea and the U.S in 2000 and 2001. In 2009 and 2013, it demanded a raise in salaries for North Korean workers in the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the resumption of the inter-Korean industrial park after a suspension. Only in early 2018 was the line restored for a different kind of reason: to arrange the dispatch of a North Korean delegation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
The past can be a mirror for the future. Pyongyang is expected to make some kind of demand this time too. The Moon Jae-in administration is eager for exchanges with North Korea. The government is expected to comply with whatever the North asks. What can be in Pyongyang’s mind? It could first demand the cancellation of the ROK-U.S. joint military drill Ulchi-Freedom Guardian (UFG) planned for later this month. On Sunday, Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister who acts as a mouthpiece for her brother, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, publicly demanded the suspension of the UFG exercise by saying, “Pyongyang will be closely watching if South Korea prepares for a hostile war [against North Korea] or makes a bold decision.” The Ministry of Defense insists on pressing ahead with the annual exercise while the Ministry of Unification and other dovish agencies argue for a delay citing the Covid-19 risk. The greater weight is given to a postponement or scaling back of the exercise.
Stopping a military drill will not be the only demand Pyongyang has in mind. North Korea’s economy contracted 4.5 percent last year, the worst performance in 23 years. This year could be more devastating due to a triple whammy of economic hardship, Covid-19 and floods. A UN report found disruptions in crop yields and shortages of essential medical supplies including vaccines. North Korea did not seek outside help even when hundreds of thousands died of hunger during the Arduous March of the late 1990s. But Kim Jong-un publicly spoke of failures in economic policy and difficulties in the livelihoods of the people. As in 2000 and 2011, North Korea may have reconnected the phone lines to ask for food aid.
The government of former President Kim Dae-jung negotiated for a reunion of separated families in return for rice assistance. As a result, families across the border reunited for the first time in 15 years. The government of President Kim Young-sam, however, lost face by trying to beat Japan in its aid to North Korea. South Korean rice had to be shipped to the North aboard a ship carrying the North Korean flag. Public sentiment soured as a result and inter-Korean relations worsened. Aid can be a win or a lose depending on how it is arranged and carried out. Some think Pyongyang could ask for vaccines and not rice this time.
But overzealousness by the Moon administration could lead to a wasting of the aid card whether it be rice or vaccines. It might be tempted to offer rice or vaccines upon a verbal promise by Kim to meet Moon in Beijing on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics. Instead of a showy but possibly substance-free summit, it would be wiser for Seoul to bargain for more practical gains such as family reunions.