Why the North Korea telephone hotline matters for diplomacy

Click to play video 'North Korea opens hotline to South over Pyeongchang games' North Korea opens hotline to South over Pyeongchang games
Experts say that North Korea and South Korea could march under a single flag and even compete as a single nation if Pyongyang sends a delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month – Jan 3, 2018

On Wednesday, North Korean and South Korean officials had a 20-minute phone call on a special hotline, the first such call in nearly two years.

The South Korean government said the two sides’ representatives exchanged names and tested the phone line. However, experts say that the mere fact that the phone is up and running is a good sign for diplomatic relations on the Korean peninsula.

READ MORE: North Korea to reopen cross-border communication with South Korea

The hotline, located on the North-South Korean border, was agreed to in 1972 and looks like a bit of a Cold War relic – with green and red handsets on the South Korean side. South Korea places a call to the North by picking up the red handset, and answers calls on the green handset, according to news reports. There’s also a fax machine.

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A South Korean government official checks the direct communications hotline to talk with the North Korean side at the border village of Panmunjom, South Korea, Jan. 3, 2018. Yonhap via REUTERS

North Korea stopped picking up the phone in 2016, after South Korea shut down a joint industrial complex. North Korea typically uses the phone line as a way to symbolically indicate its displeasure – cutting it whenever it’s upset, according to Steven Denney, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Toronto who works on Korean issues.

“It’s kind of a barometer of sorts and I think that’s how a lot of people look at it,” he said.

“When it gets shut down, I think it is an indication that relations are on ice, or icier ice if you will.”

So, he thinks that having the phone reconnected is a good sign. “It means that North Korea is willing to engage in dialogue with a presumably willing South Korean government.”

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Elliot Tepper, a distinguished senior fellow at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, also thinks having a working phone is a positive development.

“Having it re-opened means that adversaries who have the most to win or lose in any conflict, unlike Canada or the United States, are back in direct communication.”

Topics of conversation

But why does North Korea suddenly want to talk? It’s hard to say.

In his New Year’s speech, Kim Jong Un said that he was open to talking about sending a delegation to the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea. A government official on state television also said that talks on the hotline would aim to establish dialogue about how to make that happen.

READ MORE: Kim Jong Un says he’s ‘open to dialogue’ with South Korea, won’t use nukes unless threatened

WATCH: North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un had a warning for the U.S. but an olive branch for South Korea during a New Year’s Day address to the nation.

Click to play video 'Kim Jong-Un warns U.S. that he has ‘nuclear button’ on his desk' Kim Jong-Un warns U.S. that he has ‘nuclear button’ on his desk
Kim Jong-Un warns U.S. that he has ‘nuclear button’ on his desk – Jan 1, 2018

Although sports are important to North Korean national identity, there might be other motives too, said Denney. “The pessimistic interpretation is that Kim Jong Un is simply trying to buy time so as to further pursue development and missile technology and further grow his nuclear arsenal.”

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It’s also possible, thinks Tepper, that the U.S. hard line on North Korea is working, and North Korea might be reaching out as a way to open the door to diplomatic talks and a way of avoiding an actual war.

READ MORE: Donald Trump says North Korea beginning to feel pressure, hints at possible talks

U.S. President Donald Trump seems to espouse this view, tweeting on Jan. 2, “Sanctions and ‘other’ pressures are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea (…) Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time.”

He later tweeted direct threats at Kim Jong Un, saying, “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Another “going theory” according to Denney is that North Korea is trying to cause tensions between South Korea and its ally, the U.S. According to this theory, South Korea is willing to “talk for talk’s sake,” he said, and the U.S. would prefer that denuclearization be on the table and not be willing to negotiate otherwise.

U.S. officials told Reuters that Washington would not take any talks between North and South Korea seriously if they did not contribute to denuclearizing North Korea. A State Department spokeswoman said North Korea “might be trying to drive a wedge” between Washington and Seoul.

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READ MORE: Canadian coach helped North Korean figure skaters qualify for Winter Olympics

David Maxwell, a fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a retired U.S. colonel who served for years in South Korea, thinks that splitting the alliance is an essential element of North Korean strategy. As such, he hopes that the U.S. and South Korea consult on how to turn this overture to their advantage.

He also thinks that Kim Jong Un might be trying to extort money or resources from the South by dangling the possibility of a peace treaty. “I think Kim Jong Un senses an opportunity with the Moon Administration (the current government of South Korea) and may believe that he can repeat his father’s feat to extort hundreds of millions of dollars from the Republic of Korea in return for a photo op,” he said in an emailed statement.

But neither Tepper nor Denney believe that South Korea chatting to North Korea would irreparably damage the alliance. “That seems highly unlikely,” said Denney. “It’s been around for 70 years and it’s undergone more strenuous tension than this.”

South Korea and the United States have the same overall goal: the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, he said. They just differ in their approach, with South Korea more willing to entertain talks.

“[South Korean president] Moon Jae-in specifically has a much more pressing concern to defuse tension, to try alternative policies, to try alternative policies to prevent a devastating conflagration.”
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“It’s a lot easier for Washington to be more hardline isolationist because it doesn’t share a land border with North Korea.”

— with files from Reuters and the Associated Press