Shortly after President Trump claimed that the "nuclear button" on his desk is much bigger and more powerful than the button on the desk of North Korea's Kim Jong Un, the North demonstrated an eagerness to directly thaw relations with its Southern neighbor, when Pyongyang was first to use a border hotline with the South which resumed operation after an exchange of messages between Pyongyang and Seoul. Officials reportedly spoke for 20 minutes to make sure that the line works.
South and North Korea made their first contact at the border village of Panmunjom via a communication channel which Pyongyang ordered brought back online earlier on Wednesday, Yonhap reported. South Korea’s unification ministry said that “A North Korean official first contacted the South side via the channel.” The conversation was meant to pave the way for official talks between the two sides about sending a delegation from the North to next month’s Winter Olympics in the South, according to the Washington Post.
According to the statement issued by an unnamed Northern official, future discussions will focus on sending North Korean athletes to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics which will kick off in South Korea next month. The North will open dialogue at 7:00am GMT (3:00 pm Pyongyang time) at the shared border village of Panmunjom, the statement said according to Yonhap.
The decision to reopen talks effectively cuts the US out of the negotiations after Trump has belittled the notion of seeking a diplomatic solution to the current crisis. Late last year, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (whose days in the Trump administration are rumored to be numbered) received an embarrassing public rebuke from his boss after reportedly telling a group of Chinese officials that the State Department had recently initiated backdoor negotiations with the rogue state. The hotline hasn’t been used since late 2015.
The Washington Post has more:
Talks, if they take place, would mark the first formal dialogue between the two sides since December 2015, while the hotline has been dormant since February 2016. They could yield an easing of tensions after a year of nuclear and missile tests, hostile rhetoric and the real risk of war. But U.S. officials and experts have reacted cautiously and skeptically, doubting the sincerity of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea had earlier in the day announced the channel would be reopened. The South’s Unification Ministry then announced that officials from the North had called using the hotline at the shared border village of Panmunjom on Wednesday afternoon.
Officials first tested the line and held a conversation for around 20 minutes, it said, according to news agencies. The announcement follows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s offer on Monday to open a dialogue with South Korea over the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics, which begin Feb. 9.
Still, the US remains skeptical. Nikki Haley warned on Tuesday that the US is hearing reports that North Korea might be preparing for another missile test, warning that such action would necessitate more stringent restrictions on Pyongyang. Kim made the remarks about a possible détente with the South during a New Years’ address, where he also included the comments about the button.
Asked about Trump's comments, one Chinese official urged “all the relevant parties” to exercise restraint and do more to ease tensions on the peninsula. China and Russia have for months been pushing the US and the North to sit down for talks. They’ve even proposed a possible roadmap to peace that would involve the US and South Korea suspending their military exercises on the Korean peninsula in exchange for the North freezing its nuclear program. But Trump has played down these requests in favor of maintaining a belligerent attitude. Over the summer, he famously remarked that continued threats from the North would be met with “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen”.
According to the New York Times, Kim's diplomatic overture is a thinly veiled attempt to drive a wedge between Trump and his more liberal South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in. The detente also comes as the US and the South have begun cracking down on illegal oil sales to North Korea conducted via ship-to-ship transfers on the open ocean.