North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's ice-breaking offer of talks with the South and his hopes that 2018 would be a “year of conciliation” in inter-Korean relations are fast gaining momentum. Seoul welcomed the overture Tuesday, with the country's Ministry of Reunification warmly agreeing to talks “regardless of time, location and form” and Pyongyang ordering Wednesday that the long-suspended inter-Korean communication channel be reestablished.
“The restoration of the hotline is very significant,” Seoul’s Chief Presidential Press Secretary Yoon Young-Chan said, according to regional news agencies. “It creates an environment where communication will be possible at all times.”
During his New Year's address, the North's Kim proposed talks with Seoul as well as sending a delegation to the Olympic Winter Games to be held in the South in February this year.
The South Korean government responded quickly a day later by proposing high-level discussions at the heavily armed Korean border next week, which in turn prompted North Korea to reopen Wednesday the border hotline that had been closed since February 2016.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the White House sought to calm nerves after U.S. President Donald Trump's tweet about the size of his nuclear button, saying that U.S. residents should be concerned about the North Korean leader's mental fitness, not their president's.
Trump responded Tuesday to a New Year's Day speech in which North Korean leader Kim hinted at the completion of nuclear tests and warned he had a nuclear button on his desk by saying that his nuclear button "is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"
Asked at a regular news briefing whether people in the U.S. should be concerned about the president's mental fitness after the odd tweet, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders defended Trump's sanity and said his social media posts were a national security measure.
"The president and the people of this country should be concerned about the mental fitness of the leader of North Korea,” Sanders said. “[Trump] is a president who's not going to cower down and who's not going to be weak and is going to make sure that he does what he's promised to do and that is stand up and protect the American people."
The U.S. leader has called talks with Pyongyang a waste of time, has not offered a clear path to talks and has sent mixed signals about his interest in negotiations. Crediting U.S. sanctions and threats for Kim's groundbreaking overture, Trump tweeted: “Rocketman now wants to talk to South Korea for the first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not—we will see!”
As U.S. media outlets and Democratic Party politicians focused on the tweet, which some compared to Trump's 2016 discourse over small hands and the size of his “manhood,” the Korean people took small yet significant steps toward rekindling relations which were impacted over the last decade by U.S. threats and boosted sanctions.
On Wednesday morning, South Korean officials received a call from the North and officials on both sides conducted a conversation for about 20 minutes, South Korea's unification ministry said. It did not disclose the content of the discussion.
North Korea's KCNA news agency quoted Ri Son Gwon, chairman of North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, as saying talks with South Korea would aim to establish formal dialogue about sending a North Korean delegation to the Olympics.
"We will try to keep close communications with the south Korean side from a sincere stance and honest attitude, true to the intention of our supreme leadership, and deal with the practical matters related to the dispatch of our delegation," he said.
Despite the diplomatic breakthrough, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Tueday Washington would not take any talks between North and South Korea seriously if they did not contribute to efforts by the “civilized world” to dismantle the nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles of the “North Korean regime.”
Officials in Pyongyang have repeatedly stated that the weapons would only be used if North Korea's security was threatened and the U.S. failed to drop its hostile stance and regime change threats.
South Korean President Moon Jae-In has long been an advocate of the so-called “Sunshine Policy” introduced in 1998 by then-President Kim Dae-Jung, who called for a meticulous and drawn-out process of confederated reunification between the South and the North, which was led by Kim Il Jong at the time. The policy resulted in a blossoming of North-South relations, including large shipments of food aid to the North and a lifting of restrictions on joint business ventures.
The policy subsequently broke down amid threats by the United States, whose then-President George W. Bush said in 2002 that Pyongyang was a part of the “Axis of Evil” and had been clandestinely developing an illicit weapons program. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first-ever nuclear weapons test.
South Korea had been making twice-daily calls to the hotline, but the North Korean side had refused to pick up the phone since Feb. 2016 after Seoul's disgraced right-wing President Park Geun Hye ordered the inter-Korea industrial complex in Kaesong to be shut down.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said both sides should seize the Olympics as an opportunity to improve ties and make concrete efforts toward alleviating tension. The diplomat also reminded reporters that China has “stressed time and again that the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue is a security issue in essence, and its crux is the contradiction between (North Korea) and the U.S.”
In Moscow, which has also urged the cessation of tensions between allied Pyongyang and the United States, Russian Senator Frants Klintsevich said that Washington was being irrational and behaving in an unseemly manner by comparing the size of its “nuclear button” with the far smaller, poorer and long-isolated North Korea.