After more than a year, South and North Korea reopened the cross-border hotline on July 27. Both sides say they hope to improve ties through the communication channel. However, several members of the South Korean opposition party are concerned that North Korea will use this opportunity to influence the 2022 presidential election.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have been exchanging personal letters since April this year. As a result, both sides agreed to restore the inter-Korean hotline, Seoul’s presidential Blue House announced on July 27.
Moon’s Defense Ministry and Unification Ministry also expressed their expectations to improve ties with the North.
However, some politicians from South Korea’s most prominent opposition party, the National Power Party, say North Korea intends to intervene in the presidential election by restoring communication.
“North Korea may think it is time to take action for establishing a regime in Korea that they can easily control in next year’s election,” Yoo Seung-min, former legislator and presidential candidate for the National Power Party, wrote on his Facebook page on July 28.
“If the government only provides the food and support that North Korea needed, and covers up the core problem between the South and the North, and its political vanity show even influences next year’s election, the government will have to accept the judgment from the people,” Yoo added.
Popular presidential opposition candidate, Yoon Seok-youl, welcomed the resumption of ties between the two Koreas, but “hopes that the path to peace on the Korean Peninsula will be realized through ‘substantial denuclearization,’” according to a report by South Korea’s Maeil Broadcasting Network (MBN) on July 27.
“The North must make a sincere apology for its unilateral demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office and the killing of Korean civil servants,” Yoon added.
North Korea cut the hotline in June 2020 as cross-border relations soured after a failed second summit in February 2019 between Kim and former U.S. President Donald Trump, which Moon had offered to mediate. Soon after, the North blew up an inter-Korean joint liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong near the border. Then, in September of the same year, the North Korean military fatally shot a South Korean fishery official and burned his body near Yeonpyeong, an island near the border. The South’s defense ministry condemned it as a “brutal act.” The North-South relationship has deteriorated sharply since then.
“(We) cannot exclude the possibility of North Korea using the Korean government as leverage to demand food and vaccine aid,” Thae Yong-ho, member of the National Power Party, wrote on his Facebook page on July 28.
Through rebuilding ties, North Korea obtains actual benefits, while Moon and his ruling party would regard the new relationship as a bargaining chip to reinforce power, Thae added.
Thae, who had served as North Korea’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, fled to South Korea in 2016. He wrote that Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, had survived the economic crisis by pretending to agree on the U.S.-North Korean nuclear deal in Geneva.
On Oct. 21, 1994, the Kim Jong-il regime and the United States signed the DPRK-U.S. Nuclear Agreed Framework in Geneva, under which North Korea was to abandon its nuclear program and receive 500,000 tons of heavy oil per year from the United States to fuel its heating and power generation. However, in December 2002, North Korea backtracked on its commitment and restarted its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.
The reopening of communications comes at a difficult time for the Kim Jong-un regime. According to a recent report released by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), North Korea is facing a food shortage of around 860,000 tons this year.
FAO warned that without food imports and humanitarian aid to cover the shortages, North Korea “could experience a harsh lean period between August and October.”
Presidential candidates of the ruling Democratic Party, including Lee Nak-yeon and Lee Jae-myung, governor of Gyeonggi Province, are optimistic about reopening communication between the two Koreas. Lee Jae-myung said on July 27 that this is a valuable result of the exchange of personal letters between the heads of the two Koreas, MBN reported.
With less than 10 months left in Moon’s term, a July 8 poll by Korean pollster Realmeter shows high approval ratings for Lee Jae-myung at 32.4 percent, and Yoon Seok-youl of the main opposition party at 33.2 percent.
In April, Moon’s ruling camp lost in the Seoul and Busan mayoral by-elections, casting a shadow over his party’s re-election.