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North Korea Agrees To Reopen Communications Line With South Korea


President Trump is again going after North Korea on Twitter. He responded to Kim Jong Un's mention of a nuclear button by saying he too has a nuclear button and his is bigger and more powerful. This happens as North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, has started to show more willingness to hold talks with South Korea. Yesterday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Knauert said Kim's proposal could be an effort to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the South.


HEATHER NAUERT: That will not happen. That will not occur. We are very skeptical of Kim Jong Un's sincerity in sitting down and having talks.

MARTIN: Nevertheless, today, North Korea announced it will reopen a cross-border communications channel with South Korea. NPR Shanghai correspondent Rob Schmitz has been following all this. He joins us now. Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What do you know about this cross-border communications channel? How does it work? How long has it been around?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. You know, this line of communication was established in 1971, when the two Koreas agreed to use an uninhabited border village named Panmunjom along the demilitarized zone to make phone calls to each other. Here's how it works. South Korean officials sit inside a building in this village called the House of Freedom. And they work at a desk with one green phone for receiving calls and a red phone for making calls to the North. They also have a fax machine if they want to go that route.

MARTIN: A good faxing, yeah.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter) This is not a very high-tech setup here. Around a hundred yards away is North Korea's building, where they have a similar setup. South Korea calls the North on odd dates, the North takes the even dates. Now, this was the case up until early 2016, when the North stopped answering the South's calls. This was a retaliation measure the North took after the South halted operations in a joint factory complex the two sides had managed together. And they haven't spoken ever since - until, that is, of course, today.

MARTIN: Wow. So what does this mean now that this communications channel is open? It seems, to the layman, kind of significant.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. You know, South Korean officials are calling this breakthrough a very significant step in restarting dialogue with the North. The North said close communications were part of its effort to maintain a sincere and honest attitude with the South. Tensions, as we all know, are very high in the region. And up until today, there hasn't really been an official way for the two Koreas to regularly talk to each other.

Now, of course, there's no guarantee that tensions between the two Koreas will suddenly dissipate because of this. And it's clear at this stage, at least, that Kim Jong Un wanted the line reopened to discuss the specific topic of allowing a North Korean team into the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea. And in the past, when the two sides have held high-level talks, they often haven't resolved much, and they usually end it in a stalemate.

MARTIN: A stalemate, so that means we shouldn't really expect anything to come of this opening?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, I think that's the - definitely the stance the Trump administration is taking. You know, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, played down talks between the two Koreas. She said the U.S. was not looking for a Band-Aid, nor an opportunity to smile and take pictures together. She said the U.S. wouldn't take any talks seriously unless they're able to get Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons. And for President Trump's part, after sending his infamous my-nuclear-button-is-bigger-than-yours tweet, he responded to news of these talks with a follow-up tweet calling Kim Jong Un Rocket Man again but saying also this perhaps is good news, perhaps not, we will see.

All of this aside, when you look at the political situation in the region, here you have a new president in South Korea, Moon Jae-in. He's made it clear he wants to take a softer approach to the North than previous presidents in South Korea. And since he's become president, his administration hasn't had an opportunity to really talk to the North. So for him and his administration, this is progress. It's impossible to know how this, of course, will influence Kim Jong Un in what he does with the weapons his country has developed, but it is a regular dialogue, which is something that simply hasn't been there for the past two years between the two sides.

MARTIN: Take the successes where you can get them, I suppose. NPR's Rob Schmitz. Thanks so much, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.