Three South Korean government sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters that North Korea and South Korea are negotiating to reopen the joint liaison office that Pyongyang dismantled last year and hold a summit as part of efforts to restore relations.
A source who declined to be named due to diplomatic sensitivity said that since April, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have been exploring ways to improve tensions through multiple communications.
After three leaders’ summits in 2018 promised peace and reconciliation, these discussions marked an improvement in relations that had deteriorated over the past year.
The inter-Korean talks will also help restart the deadlocked negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington, aimed at lifting North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
This issue is of vital importance to Moon Jae-in, who faced a decline in approval ratings during his last year in office. Moon Jae-in used his legacy to improve relations with North Korea and helped Kim Jong-un and then US President Donald Trump establish a historic meeting between 2018 and 2019.
On Tuesday, after the 1950-53 conflict ended with a ceasefire, the two countries are still technically at war Hotline reconnected The North was cut off in June last year.
Two sources said that the two sides are discussing the reconstruction of the joint liaison office in the truce village of Panmunjom on the border.Pyongyang is spectacular destroy The former office in its border town of Kaesong in 2020.
The source said that they are still seeking a summit between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, no time frame or other details were proposed.
North Korea has not confirmed any COVID-19 cases, but it has closed its borders and adopted strict precautions.
A source said: “Negotiations are still ongoing, and COVID-19 should be the biggest factor.” “Face-to-face meetings are the best, but hopefully things will get better.”
Moon Jae-in’s office mentioned the briefing given by his press secretary Park Soo-hyun on Tuesday. He said that the issue of resuming the liaison office will be discussed. The leader has not yet proposed any plans for the summit.
A second source said that a virtual summit may be an option, depending on whether North Korea refuses to attend face-to-face meetings because of COVID-19.
“If we can do this, and North Korea has this ability, it will make a big difference and open so many windows of opportunity to restart negotiations with the United States.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, North Korea has not held any meetings with foreigners, restricted access to external media, and its delegation to the United Nations was unable to comment.
Moon Jae-in once called for the restoration of the hotline and proposed a video summit with Kim Jong-un, but Pyongyang had previously publicly responded to severe criticism, saying it had no intention of dialogue with Seoul.
The first source stated that Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un have exchanged more than 10 “candid” letters, which led to the establishment of a communication channel between the Seoul intelligence service and Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jung.
Despite the “ups and downs” of the negotiation, the two sides agreed to reopen the hotline as the first step over the weekend.
According to sources, Kim Jong-un’s move reflects a willingness to respond to the US proposal for talks because President Joe Biden’s government promised to take practical measures, including not appointing a North Korean human rights envoy.
The source said: “There are some obvious factors, including the adoption of a phased, targeted action approach, rather than a big deal, and the appointment of nuclear negotiators instead of human rights envoys.” “After all, Washington has announced its policies. North Korea cannot sit back and watch, so the relationship between South Korea and North Korea is a starting point.”
The U.S. Embassy in Seoul declined to comment and forwarded the inquiry to the State Department, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
US Secretary of State Anthony Brinken stated in June that the Biden administration was determined to appoint a North Korean human rights envoy, but did not provide a timetable.
A spokesman said at the opening of the welcome hotline on Tuesday that Washington supports inter-Korean contacts and diplomacy is essential to achieving complete denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.
A third source said that the two countries only announced the reopening of the hotline because little progress has been made on other issues, including how North Korea will apologize for blowing up the liaison office.
Affected by the pandemic and last year’s typhoon, North Korea is facing its worst economic crisis since the famine of the 1990s, which killed as many as 3 million people.
The Bank of Korea (BOK) said on Friday that last year’s gross domestic product (GDP) actually contracted 4.5%, the worst performance since 1997, reversing the 0.4% growth reported in 2019.
An official from the Bank of Korea told reporters: “As the United Nations continues to severely sanctions, North Korea’s lockdown measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic… and worsening weather conditions such as heavy rains and typhoons are the main factors leading to economic contraction.”
According to sources, North Korea is expected to resume trade with its main ally China as early as August, involving freight train services. The plan was cancelled in April because of concerns that the COVID-19 variant was more contagious.
Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and calls to the Chinese Embassy in Seoul were not answered.