By Taehoon Lee and Hilary Whiteman
North Korea called South Korea on a hotline that’s been dormant for almost two years Wednesday, a major diplomatic breakthrough following a year of escalating hostility that could pave the way for future talks.
The country’s leader Kim Jong Un gave the order to open the line at 3.00 p.m local time (1:30 a.m. ET) to begin discussions on sending a North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month.
According to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, North Korea made the first contact via the phone line at exactly the time ordered.
“We have checked the communication line and are contacting each other,” said a text message from the South’s Unification Ministry to reporters.
The call comes just days after the North Korean leader extended a rare olive branch to the South during an unusually conciliatory New Year’s speech, in which Kim said discussions should start “as soon as possible” about sending a North Korean sporting delegation to Pyeongchang.
In response, the South Korean President Moon Jae-In called for swift measures during a Cabinet meeting Tuesday to smooth North Korea’s participation in the Games.
But while relations appear to be thawing between the two Koreas, the US President Donald Trump has shown no indication of softening his hardline stance.
In an astonishing tweet posted late Tuesday, Trump compared the size of his nuclear button to Kim’s. During his New Year’s Day address, the North Korean leader boasted that he had a nuclear button on his desk.
“I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” the US President tweeted.
Wednesday’s contact between the two Koreas marks the first time in almost two years that a special direct hotline in the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone has been used to connect the two countries.
Until Wednesday, North Korea had not answered since February 2016 when South Korea suspended operations at the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex, a business park that once employed workers from both sides.
“They’ve been trying at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. every single day, just to check if North Korea had opened that communication channel. So it is significant that North Korea has announced this,” said CNN’s Seoul-based correspondent, Paula Hancocks.
Moon’s office welcomed the gesture Wednesday and expressed optimism that the Olympic talks would be extended.
“The restoration of the communication channels means a lot. It is assessed that (we) are headed to setting up a structure through which contacts can be made on a regular basis,” said Presidential press secretary, Yoon Young-chan.
Moon has championed the 2018 Winter Olympics, set to begin February 9, as a possible means of easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
In a November interview with CNN, the South Korean leader described the Games as an opportunity for inter-Korean peace and reconciliation, and expressed his hope that the North would participate.
Only two North Korean athletes have qualified for the Games — pairs figure skaters Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-sik. However, the country’s National Olympic Committee did not meet an October 30 deadline to accept their spot.
There has been talk of the International Olympic Committee granting an additional quota, something previously proposed by Choi Moon-soon, governor of the Gangwon province that will host the Winter Games.
South Korea’s Ministry of Unification also expressed hope Wednesday that the Olympic discussions could create the environment for future talks.
“Further procedures regarding inter-Korean government talks proposed yesterday will be discussed through the communications channel,” the statement said.
US’ tough stance
Trump’s hardline stance was backed by the country’s Ambassador to the United Nations, who reiterated Tuesday that the US “will never accept a nuclear North Korea.”
Before the call between North and South Korea, Nikki Haley said North Korea needed to ban all nuclear weapons as a precondition for any talks.
“We consider this to be a very reckless regime, we don’t think we need a Band-Aid and we don’t think we need to smile and take a picture,” she said. “We think that we need to have them stop nuclear weapons and they need to stop it now.”