Koreas talk again in dormant channels, agree to improve ties

North Korea Anniversary

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North and South Korea have exchanged messages in communication channels dormant for more than a year and agreed to improve ties — positive steps that still leave any resumption of stalled negotiations to rid the North of its nuclear weapons a long way off.

Liaison officials from the Koreas had several phone conversations Tuesday including one on a military hotline and agreed to resume speaking regularly, Seoul officials said. The rivals use the channels to lay out their positions on issues and even propose broader dialogue, and the links are also critical to preventing any accidental clashes along their disputed sea boundary.

While the renewed communication could help ease tensions across the world’s most heavily fortified border, it’s only a small first step. Pyongyang is unlikely to revive vigorous cooperation programs with Seoul or get back to the nuclear talks led by the United States anytime soon. Some experts say North Korea is instead aiming to improve ties with South Korea in the hopes it will persuade the U.S. to make concessions when nuclear diplomacy with Washington eventually does resume.

Those efforts have been stalled for more than two years amid wrangling over punishing U.S.-led sanctions on the North. During the diplomatic impasse, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has threatened to enlarge his nuclear arsenal if the U.S. doesn’t abandon its hostile policy, an apparent reference to the sanctions.

On Tuesday, the two Koreas announced their leaders — Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in — have traded personal letters several times since April and decided in those exchanges to resume communication in the channels.

Moon’s office said the two leaders agreed to “restore mutual confidence and develop their relationships again as soon as possible.” The North’s state media, for its part, said Kim and Moon agreed to “make a big stride in recovering the mutual trust and promoting reconciliation by restoring the cutoff inter-Korean communication liaison lines.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the announcement of the reopening of communication channels and “fully supports the continued efforts of the parties towards the improvement of their relationship, sustainable peace and complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.

Tuesday’s resumption of communication comes on the 68th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, which pitted South Korea and U.S.-led U.N. forces against North Korea and China. That armistice has yet to be replaced with a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula in a technical state of war, with about 28,500 U.S. troops still stationed in South Korea.

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