On Wednesday the North Koreans picked up the phone for the first time in nearly two years. The South had been calling from their side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) twice a day, every day at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. since communications ceased in February of 2016. There have been four additional calls since Wednesday when North Korean state media announced that the country’s leader Kim Jong Un had given the order to open the line and establish communications.
The call seemed to be sparked by the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea, a competition in which North Korea hopes to have its athletes participate. The call came as surprise to South Korea, whose President has long called for dialogue with the North to no avail.
Meanwhile this week, the Chinese announced they are limiting exports of oil and gas to North Korea, banning sales of steel and cutting back on other imports in line with U.N. sanctions. China is the most important trading partner with the DPRK so these types of actions can have a severe impact. Kim’s New Year’s address (the one that launched a Twitter war about the button) hinted that the existing sanctions are beginning to take a toll. These new moves by the PRC might have Kim legitimately concerned. He’s also watching what is happening in Iran. Iran is responsible for 10% of the DPRK’s GDP so if things go south in Iran, that’s another problem for North Korea. More reason for the Kim regime to pick up the phone and appear to be cooperative.
Whether the Chinese will go through with the restrictions is questionable. With China, you often must watch what they do in addition to listening to what they say. Typically, the Chinese will issue pronouncements like these and do what they are supposed to for a couple of months, then stop when U.S. attention is drawn elsewhere. It remains to be seen if Trump and the U.S. will enforce the U.N. sanctions, through force if necessary, as they’ve said they would.
While the U.S. is demanding the dismantling of Kim’s nuclear arsenal, Kim is trying to deter the U.S. with threats of the using the “button” on his desk. China is not going to let that occur. The PRC stated if the U.S. were to strike first, they will side with the DPRK. How they do that can take many forms. For example, China might cause trouble in the South China Sea. Russia might be stirred to cause issues in the Baltics. Consequences like these could spread quickly and these are possibilities that need to be discussed.
Do the phone calls mean that relations are improving? For now, they appear to be pretty much the same. Trump says he will never let North Korea obtain the ability to strike U.S. homeland, but intelligence experts believe that’s only 6-12 months away. North Korea can already strike the U.S. mainland with an Electro Magnetic Pulse, which would be paralyzing. Kim still has cards to play so renewed phone calls are most likely just that for now: more words.