A South Korean military officer speaks to his North Korean counterpart over a cross-DMZ hotline. On Monday, North Korea responded to calls for the first time in 55 days. Photo: AFP

SEOUL – So, the game is back in play. North Korea restored cross-border hotlines on Monday, raising hopes among some members of Seoul’s political class for improved relations and even “high-level” meetings before the year-end.

South Korean officials made contact with their North Korean counterparts on Monday morning, Yonhap News Agency reported, via two hotlines: one military, one Red Cross.

It was the first time in 55 days that the North had responded to the South’s calls.

Via “stable management of the communication lines and swift resumption of dialogue, the government hopes to begin and advance substantive discussions on improving inter-Korean relations,” Seoul’s Unification Ministry said.

Separately, Unification Minister Lee In-young said South Korea will push to arrange high-level talks with North Korea before 2021 comes to a close.

Hotlines had been cut off in 2020 amid tensions over the flight of propaganda balloons across the border by activists in the South, which infuriated Pyongyang. They were restored in July, but after the South Korean and US militaries conducted summer military drills, the North Korean side stopped responding to South Korean communications.

Monday’s resumption of calls had been earlier signaled by both Kim Jong Un and his high-profile sister Kim Yo Jong. Cynics might say the hotlines have become a puppet string for the North Koreans to jerk when they want something from their southern counterparts – but what Pyongyang wants from Seoul is unclear at this juncture.

Certainly, the news will send no tsunami of excitement coursing through the jaded community of Korea watchers who have seen change-defying North Korea make these kinds of gesture so many, many times before.

Kim Jong Un meets South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Moon’s biggest ambition has been inter-Korean engagement. Photo: The Blue House

And certainly, it is a sign of the utterly dire state of relations between two states that have been separated since the Korean War wound in 1953 that such a low-cost, low-energy move by the North has animated pro-engagers in the South.

Where good news is great news

After all, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s Blue House has a hotline to Kim’s State Affairs Commission, and there is, contrary to popular belief, email contact between the two states.

But for the single-term president, whose formerly bright star is rapidly fading as his term comes to a close – he leaves office next May – Monday’s news could be electrifying.

Though he has done an impressive job of managing Covid-19, while shepherding his export-dependent economy through the worst of the unprecedented pandemic and maintaining an alliance with the US despite the storms of the Donald Trump presidency – Moon’s biggest ambition has been inter-Korean engagement.

That ambition has been wilting even since Trump walked out of a summit with Kim in Hanoi in 2019. Optimists had hoped that Kim’s offer at the summit might translate into a limited deal, which would help the two states build trust, and expand. Pessimists had been convinced that North Korea would never denuclearize, so the whole exercise was a farce.

Seoul, heavily dependent upon its strategic alliance with the much more powerful Washington, is largely a slave to US policy on North Korea. To nobody’s surprise, North-South relations shriveled.

That was hardly a political disaster for Seoul. Nobody is in a hurry to push reunification – a high-risk, hugely expensive end goal for which there are few plans and no process. And, the generation who have family north of the DMZ are dying out. Few young South Koreans pay much attention to the country to their direct north.

Yet Moon keeps the light shining. He has said he is ready to engage North Korea up to his “final day” in office, having been visibly gratified by his engagements with Kim in the summits of 2018.

Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump walk together at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi. Hopes of a breakthrough in their talks came to nothing. Photo: AFP / KCNA via KNS

And even within the limited wriggle room strategic realities offer him, Moon has much to play for.

He had hoped to reconnect inter-Korean road and rail links, reconnecting South Korea to the Eurasian continent for the first time since the end of the Korean War. That was doomed by the Hanoi summit.

He subsequently offered humanitarian relief and vaccine support. That was rejected as an angry North Korea, bruised by the failure of Kim-Trump diplomacy and living next door to Covid-struck China, withdrew from international engagement, sheltered in its collective bunker and locked all entrances.

Prior to Monday’s news, various straws have been clutched at by Seoul officialdom – many of which prompted Korean wonks to shake their heads.

There had been high hopes during the Tokyo Olympics Games that the event would provide a platform for a resumption of talks. But, citing Covid-19, North Korea did not attend.  Ditto, North Korea will not be present at the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics.  

So what is left?

Though he is now in the “lame duck” period of his term, Moon may want one, last summit. During that he could – feasibly – reach a limited deal. That would then be ratified by the National Assembly, where his party has a majority. That process would weld his successor to whatever Kim and Moon might agree upon.

Meanwhile, seen through Pyongyang’s prism, the timing may be right. It knows that Seoul’s freedom of action is limited by Washington, but can feasibly win some benefits.

Kim’s conundrums

A Northern outreach to South Korea as the world awakens from Covid-19 makes sense, given that the situations regarding the two other key players on the North’s limited geopolitical periphery are not promising.

People at a railway station in Seoul on September 28 watch a television news broadcast showing file footage of a North Korean missile test. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

Globally isolated North Korea must ride two tigers. It suffers from over-dependence upon China, as well as tense relations with Washington.

While China trades with and invests in North Korea, the latter’s lack of partners grants Beijing massive leverage – leverage that irks Pyongyang. As a result, trade takes place on Chinese terms and investment is largely low-end resource extraction.

Relations with the US are problematic for different reasons. Relations are poor, but that does not mean contact is cut. Asia Times understands that there have been talks between North Korea and the Joe Biden-era US, behind closed doors at an undisclosed location in Europe. But there has been no agreement.

This could explain the recent barrage of missile tests, signaling Pyongyang’s displeasure.

For Biden’s White House, North Korea is a distant priority. The aging president is under multi-dimensional domestic pressures, which likely preclude overseas peacemaking. But even before Biden’s woes were ignited by the Afghan debacle, Korea watchers were disappointed by the signal he sent to Pyongyang with the assignment of a special envoy.

The envoy, Sung Kim, is an extremely smart, widely respected expert on Korean affairs. But he has a day job: He is Washington’s ambassador to Jakarta. Moreover, as a diplomat, he falls well outside the core Biden brain trust.

A source close to Moon told Asia Times that the hope, in Seoul, had been for a player at the policy level in the Democratic Party to be appointed to the North Korea brief. That would have required North Korea to appoint a similarly high-level counterparty, which could have put wheels under diplomatic engagement.

The lack of leverage

The challenge North Korea presents is a near-impossible one for democratic governments, such as those which hold power in Seoul, Washington and Tokyo to respond effectively to.

Sung Kim is highly regarded for his expertise on North Korea but has other responsibilities. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

How do you deal with a regime which cares more for the dignity of its leadership and the security of its elite than the well-being of its populace? Where do your levers lie?

An obvious one is the military. But the perils implicit in operations against a modern Sparta like North Korea – which possesses a functional nuclear deterrent – are unthinkable.

Another obvious answer would be to support, fund, train and arm a resistance movement to overthrow the regime from within. That too is unthinkable.

So secure is Kim’s fortress state, and so deeply entrenched and so extensive are its state surveillance mechanisms, that while there are believed to have been at least two military coup attempts in the 1990s, there is minimal likelihood of operatives evading capture or death. 

And it would need to be operatives, as there is no space in the official North Korean political landscape for anti-Kim voices.

What about pressure tactics? North Korea is one of the most heavily sanctioned states on earth, but enjoys an economic pressure release valve: China.

While China does not favor North Korea’s military provocations, it certainly does not want to see the country wobble and release potential instability over China’s border. Moreover, at a time when Beijing-Washington are increasingly aligned against one another, it seems unlikely the China will turn the screws on North Korea at US request.

So for Seoul, and for the global North, what remains is diplomacy. But diplomacy with North Korea has been largely fruitless.

The natural outcomes of diplomacy – political and trade/commercial ties – are virtually non-existent. While a number of Western democracies have established tiny missions in Pyongyang, political linkages remain minimal. When did you last hear of a senior European or North American official visiting Pyongyang?

A worker on a production line for cakes in Pyongyang. North Korea has no major brands or industry apart from military production. Photo: AFP / Kim Won Jin

And trade and commerce is barely a trickle.

Many claim that sanctions explain this – but foreign companies and individuals that did business with North Korea prior to the heaviest sanctions being enacted hardly prospered. Indeed, multiple firms in multiple sectors – European investment banks, Swiss watchmakers, Egyptian telcos, South Korean conglomerates – ended up burned.  

The resultant lack of trade and investment leaves the Global North with virtually no commercial or technological leverage.

The incredible non-collapsing state

Many who do not study North Korea don’t get this. Your correspondent recalls briefing a senior editor at a British newspaper on the lack of resistance to the Kim regime. He simply could not comprehend that there was none.

Another well-educated Brit asked me whether the Kims are “mad.” In fact, the Kims are very shrewd, calculating politicians who play their weak hand in international affairs brilliantly.

After all, North Korea is a black hole in otherwise industrially sizzling, technologically surging Northeast Asia. It has produced not a single international brand nor any cultural export of global note.

It is led by one of the most globally recognized Asian faces on Planet Earth, but what makes it relevant in global affairs is its massive army, nuclear arsenal and ever-improving missile technologies.

I have acquaintances who have met all three Kims – the late state founder Kim Il Sung, his late son Kim Jong Il and his grandson and current leader, Kim Jong Un. They all say the same things about all three Kims – they are both smart and charismatic.

Yes, they preside over a system that offers its citizens virtually no rights or freedoms, while operating some of the darkest penal institutions on earth. Moreover, locals have minimal chances of overcoming class barriers and live in one of East Asia’s poorest nations.

But the Kims do provide stability.

And that is important, for it is something that both the punditry and the general Western public fail to grasp.

Since the early 1990s, a number of experts have predicted a North Korean collapse. Their predictions, it is safe to say, were wishful thinking. And beyond that small circle, there is widespread and comforting – almost fairy-tale – belief among many natives of liberal democracies that authoritarian governance is somehow doomed to fall.

North Korea and China both give the lie to that.

Another complication is any seismic change could be catastrophic, unleashing risk across the heart of the world’s third most important zone of economic activity. So any transformation that does occur – such as the creeping advance of basic, market-capitalist practices across the nation since the 1990s – is best kept to a gradual pace.

North Korea has built up extreme resistance to outside influence. And it is not about to implode at any time in the near future. This means that what we have now is what we are going to keep getting.

This is a reality the wider world has to deal with and a reality South Korea has to live with.

Granted, some may argue that the South is being jerked around by North Korean puppet masters, is rewarding bad behavior and is playing a game it cannot win.

Still, for South Korea, any engagement that opens dialogue is a plus.

Talking holds the potential of doing some good – such as dispatching humanitarian aid. For prosperous South Korea, a G10 economy, such aid is low-cost.

And promotion of the status quo is a hedge against the possibility of new tensions arising – amid the post-Covid era and a regional arms race – that could impact Seoul’s capital markets.

Many Korea watchers will have sighed or yawned when they saw Monday’s news.

But the massive stakes in play are why pro-engagers in Seoul get animated when their North Korean counterparties do something as minimalist as answering a telephone. Good news and positive developments are so thin on the ground, anything that is not bad news is cause for excitement.