People in isolated nation reel from impact of sanctions, COVID-19 border closure and extreme weather.
South and North Korea have restored cross-border communications, just over a year since the hotline was cut off, in a surprise move that the two countries said was part of an effort to rebuild trust.
The decision was announced in statements by South Korea’s presidential Blue House and KCNA, the North’s state media agency.
KCNA said all inter-Korean communication channels were reopened at 10am on Tuesday (01:00 GMT) in line with an agreement between the countries’ two leaders.
The Blue House said the restoration of communication lines would have a “positive impact on the improvement and development of South-North relations”.
KCNA also welcomed the “positive effects” of the decision, which it said represented “a big stride in recovering the mutual trust and promoting reconciliation”.
The move to restore hotline links comes 13 months after Pyongyang shut down all communication in protest over Seoul’s supposed failure to stop activists from sending anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets across the border.
Both sides said South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had been exchanging letters since April this year.
Kim has talked of the serious problems plaguing his country this year, after it closed its borders with China early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
In January, he told a rare party congress that the North’s five-year economic plan had failed in almost every area, amid chronic power and food shortages exacerbated by sanctions, the pandemic and floods. In June, he described the food situation as “tense”.
“We know North Korea has been reeling from the pandemic over the past year,” Soo Kim, a former CIA North Korea analyst who now works at the Rand Corporation told Reuters news agency. “That, combined with sanctions, natural disasters, and an overall decrepit economy, likely put Kim Jong Un in dire straits. So perhaps Kim is looking to Seoul to help bail him out of this ‘tense’ food situation and other baggage resulting from the pandemic.”
North Korea cut the hotline in June 2020 as cross-border ties soured after a failed second summit in February 2019 between Kim and Donald Trump, who was then president of the United States.
Moon, who has long sought warmer relations with Pyongyang and is credited with brokering the initial summit between Kim and Trump in June 2018 – the first ever involving a sitting US president – has called for a recovery of the hotline and stalled denuclearisation talks.
Joe Biden, who took over as US president in January, has promised a change of approach to North Korean and a more “practical, calibrated” policy.
Sung Kim, the top US diplomat in charge of North Korea negotiations, said in June that Washington was ready to meet officials from Pyongyang “anywhere, anytime, without preconditions”.
But Kim Yo Jong – Kim Jong Un’s sister and a key adviser – rebuffed the offer.
Analysts say Tuesday’s surprise restoration of the inter-Korean hotlines could be seen as a sign of Kim’s response to Washington.
“It looks like he has decided that restoring inter-Korean relations is beneficial to the North’s both domestic and foreign policies and politics,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, told AFP news agency.
Despite the standstill in talks, Moon has relentlessly stressed the importance of restoring inter-Korean ties, he added. The two Koreas remain technically at war because the 1950-1953 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
“This should be read as Kim Jong Un’s first response to Seoul and Washington,” Yang said.