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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
Though Seoul and Pyongyang installed a “historic hotline” between the two Koreas during a period of detente in April last year, South Korea’s Prime Minister revealed in March that the telephone system has yet to be used by either leader.
As the first official hotline to be installed between the two Koreas, the connection is ostensibly designed to provide South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a means to reduce misunderstanding during times of tension.
With a photo last year showing the hotline phone on Moon’s desk and it being connected directly to North Korea’s State Affairs Commission, questions have been growing in recent weeks about its practical purpose.
Besides the embarrassment of being repeatedly given the cold shoulder by North Korea in recent weeks, Moon has since Saturday also had to contend with the first missile testing activities by Kim Jong Un in almost 18 months.
With the risk that the missile testing can escalate into peninsula tensions similar to those experienced in the dark days of 2017, on the surface now might be a good time for Moon to get on the phone and address the growing problems directly with Kim.
Multiple North Korea specialists, however, told NK News they were pessimistic about the prospect of the hotline serving a practical role any time soon.
“The Blue House once said that the hotline is only for an extremely important case and there is no guarantee it will be answered by Kim if Moon is ever going to make a call,” said Bong Young-shik of Yonsei University.
As a result, “Moon cannot risk (trying the line) as he needs to do everything to keep momentum for cooperation and dialogue, however faint it might be.”
Thae Yong-ho, a former DPRK diplomat based in London, agreed that such risks were high with North Korea.
“It is not Moon’s fault,” Thae said. “Even though Moon wants to talk with Kim, Kim will not pick the phone.”
“(And) even if Moon wants to talk to Kim, North and South governments should agree in advance but North would not agree with it,” he continued.
“Kim is not the kind of person who is willing to talk freely on the phone with Moon.”
Aidan Foster-Carter, a long-time contributor to NK News, agreed that “Moon wants to avoid the humiliation of Kim not picking up, which would force him to admit how bad things have got.”
But for others, the reason Moon refrains from calling is more related to international relations.
“I think quite a few people misunderstand the hotline, as indeed they do the inter-Korean liaison office at Kaesong,” said Christopher Green of the International Crisis Group.
“Welcome as both may be, the hotline and the liaison office are fundamentally political entities, and thus beholden to the politics of inter-Korean relations,” he continued.
“Operations are always contingent upon surrounding political circumstances.”
For Andrei Lankov, a director with Korea Risk Group, the reason Moon cannot call is simply because “there is not much to talk about”.
That’s because Seoul “does not control the situation,” he said, and Moon “cannot persuade the U.S. to approve sanctions’ removal” – a key hurdle to the inter-Korean cooperation Kim Jong Un previously showed interest in.
“On the other hand, we have not seen a really dangerous situation so far, no conflict which can develop into a massive confrontation,” Lankov continued.
CONDITIONS OF USE
So if the current situation does not suffice Moon using the hotline, under what conditions might he consider it in future?
“The intrinsic problem is that when relations with North Korea are good, Moon Jae-in probably could use the hotline to contact Kim Jong Un,” said Christopher Green. “But those times are not when he actually needs to use the hotline.”
“When relations are bad and the hotline would indeed be useful for managing tense relations, it is very rarely in North Korea’s strategic interest to use it.”
As a result, Green said usage of the hotline would only make sense for “the very, very rare occasions when it is in both countries strategic interest to use it, which could be very dangerous times indeed.”
Yet an alternative to trying to alleviate a significant security threat might, according to Lankov, be in the event of “dramatic changes in the economic situation, with prospects for a revival of inter-Korean cooperation”.
However, not all specialists agreed.
Bong Young-shik said he “cannot think of any situation under which a South Korean president can ever use it.”
For in the event of a genuine crisis emerging and the Blue House using the hotline without full consultation and support from Washington would be “difficult to imagine,” he said.
That’s because usage of the hotline without prior consultation would result in the credibility of South Korea as a U.S. ally being “critically damaged.”
“For instance, can Seoul really tell Pyongyang that the U.S. is going to conduct surgical strikes?” he said. “So, all in all, this is a hotline that is not supposed to be used at all; (it’s) only for symbolic significance.”
Overall, that’s a point that Aidan Foster-Carter appeared to agree with.
“The hotline is a good example of symbol vs substance in Moon’s whole approach,” he said.
“Hey, we’ve a hotline! (But unused.)”
“Hey, we’ve a liaison office! (But nothing is happening there.)”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Pexels