Just hours after President Donald Trump shocked the world with a nuclear threat to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the North Korean government made a surprising move… and reopened a key cross-border communication channel with South Korea for the first time in nearly two years Wednesday.
Kim said he was willing to send a delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea. But he also said he has a “nuclear button” on his desk and that all U.S. territory is within striking distance of his nuclear weapons, comments Trump latched onto Tuesday when he boasted of a bigger and more powerful “nuclear button” than Kim’s.
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The two leaders also exchanged insults last year, as the North received new U.N. sanctions over its sixth and most powerful nuclear test explosion and a series of intercontinental ballistic missile launches.
The recent softening of contact between the rival Koreas may show a shared interest in improved ties, and Trump supporters are pointing to the move as proof that the White House’s “get tough” approach to Kim is working. While Kim’s rhetoric has been inflammatory for years, experts say his actions speak louder than words.
Their actions, it seems, involves coming to the negotiating table. There have been repeated attempts in recent years by the rivals to talk, but even when they do meet, the efforts often end in recriminations and stalemate.
Other critics say Kim may be trying to use better ties with South Korea as a way to weaken the alliance between Washington and Seoul, however. As the North grapples with toughened international sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs, it may be trying to weaken United States influence over the region.
Kim’s latest announcement, which was read by a senior Pyongyang official on state TV, followed a South Korean offer on Tuesday of high-level talks with North Korea to find ways to cooperate on next month’s Winter Olympics in the South and discuss other inter-Korean issues.
Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the state-run Committee for the Peaceful Reunification, cited Kim as welcoming South Korea’s overture and ordering officials to reopen a communication channel at the border village of Panmunjom. Ri also quoted Kim as ordering officials to promptly take substantial measures with South Korea out of a “sincere stand and honest attitude,” according to the North’s state TV and news agency.
South Korea quickly welcomed Kim’s decision and later confirmed that the two Koreas began preliminary contacts on the channel. During their 20-minute communication, liaison officials of the two Koreas exchanged their names and examined their communication lines to make sure they were working, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.
Relations between the Koreas soured under Moon’s conservative predecessors, who responded to Trump’s election with hard-line measures against the North’s nuclear ambitions. All major rapprochement projects were put on hold one by one, and the Panmunjom communication channel had been suspended since February 2016.
Moon has joined U.S.-led international efforts to apply more pressure and sanctions on North Korea, but he still favors dialogue as a way to resolve the nuclear standoff. The Trump administration says all options are on the table, including military measures against the North. Moon has repeatedly said he opposes any war on the Korean Peninsula.
Talks could provide a temporary thaw in strained inter-Korean ties, but conservative critics worry that they may only earn the North time to perfect its nuclear weapons.
The Associated Press contributed to this article