Just in case you had trouble sleeping after Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump traded threats about each ruler’s “nuclear button,” the North Korean supreme leader also said something uncharacteristically optimistic in his New Year’s Day speech. Kim expressed hope for a “peaceful resolution” to the half-century-old conflict with South Korea and said that talks should start “as soon as possible.” Accordingly, he also ordered a long dormant phone line between North and South Korea to be reopened. The first call between the warring nations took place on Wednesday.
Don’t get your hopes up quite yet. Kim’s actions could be a trick, and they’re almost definitely a ploy to boost relations between Pyongyang and Seoul as the South prepares to host the Winter Olympics. Which might not be a bad thing! United States officials sounded more cynical following Kim’s remarks, however. In its analysis, The New York Times claimed that the so-called olive branch offered by Kim was just “a canny new strategy to initiate direct talks with South Korea in the hope of driving a wedge into its seven-decade alliance with the United States.”
But about those newly operational phones. The main hotline between North and South Korea stretches between two buildings in the border village of Panmunjom, which lies in the demilitarized zone. The South’s phone is less than 100-meters (about 328 feet) from the North’s, and until this week, the two sides hadn’t had a conversation since 2016, when Seoul shut down the Kaesong industrial complex in retaliation for Pyongyang’s nuclear testing. The Kaesong complex employed both North and South Koreans. North Korea effectively stopped answering South Korea’s calls, even though the South has continued to call the North twice a day for nearly two years. North Korea just never picked up the phone.
The phones themselves don’t look terribly sophisticated. While we don’t know what kind of hardware the North is using, there are plenty of photos of the terminal on the South side. It looks a little bit like a big video slot machine with a computer screen in the middle that may or may not be running Windows XP. There are two handsets: one green for the South to make calls to the North and one red for receiving calls from the North. There’s also a green clock with Seoul time and a red one with Pyongyang time which is 30 minutes behind. There are three USB ports flanking both sides of the screen as well as two DVD players, which could be used for installing software. Finally, there are two grey modules next to the handsets with red and green buttons below them. Oh, and there’s a fax machine to the left of the whole terminal, for sending faxes.
This apparently antiquated system is now the only official channel between North and South Korea. The radio silence ended at 3:30 GMT on January 3, when the two sides spoke for 20 minutes to test the line and ensure the technology was still functioning properly. Back when these kinds of calls were more ordinary, there would be two a day: one at 9:00am and one at 4:00pm. A former South Korean communications officer told the Yonhap news agency in 2008 that the five-minute-long conversations were all business. “All the phone calls were official. We didn’t exchange any unofficial jokes,” said Kim Yeon-cheol.
While the nature of these new conversations remain unclear, leaders on both sides of the borders seem encouraged by the progress. Yoon Young-chan, a spokesman for South Korean president Moon Jae-in told the press that the reopening of the hotline “is highly significant,” while senior North Korean official Ri Son-kwon said on state television that the Kim regime “will connect with the South with a sincere and diligent attitude.” Ri also said that they hope the Pyeongchang Olympics “will be successful.”
But still, there’s a chance that Kim’s move to reestablish contact with South Korea is some sort of distraction. This more pessimistic read is worth considering if only because the North Korea leader announced the move in the same speech where he said, “The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, a nuclear button is always on my desk.” Then, of course, President Trump tweeted this:
So there’s a lot going on here. It seems great that the North Koreans and the South Koreans have their old phones fired up again. Whether or not that brings us closer or further away from nuclear war remains to be seen.