U.S. and China See Hope in New Contact Between North, South Korea on War Anniversary

The United States and China have both expressed hope that the renewal of contacts between the two Koreas after over a year of silence and tensions may lead to more positive developments between the rival neighbors.

The South Korean Defense Ministry reported early Tuesday, the 68th anniversary of the armistice that ended the combat phase of the Korean War, that South Korean and North Korean military officials resumed regular cross-border communications after having been cut off last June. The line was restored in the Yellow Sea, known to the Koreas as the West Sea, while a second in the Sea of Japan, known to the Koreas as the East Sea, was said to have experienced technical difficulties.

North Korea, officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and South Korea, officially the Republic of Korea (ROK), may have stopped fighting years ago, but technically remain at war with no peace treaty between them. Efforts for peace were pursued jointly in 2018 by North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and U.S. President Donald Trump, but the process stalled and ultimately fell out to renewed tensions.

The restoration of contacts was said by the South Korean Defense Ministry to be expected to "contribute substantially to alleviating military tensions, such as the implementation of the September 19 military agreement between the two Koreas," a deal struck between Kim and Moon during their third and last inter-Korean summit in 2018.

North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency also reflected positively on the development.

"Now, the whole Korean nation desires to see the north-south relations recovered from setback and stagnation as early as possible," the outlet said. "In this regard, the top leaders of the north and the south agreed to make a big stride in recovering the mutual trust and promoting reconciliation by restoring the cutoff inter-Korean communication liaison lines through the recent several exchanges of personal letters."

The move "will have positive effects on the improvement and development of the north-south relations," it reported.

In Washington, where President Joe Biden's administration has opened the door for diplomacy with North Korea while also warning against any provocations, State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter offered a similar assessment.

"I'll say that the U.S. supports inter-Korean dialogue and engagement, and of course welcomes today's announcement of restoration of inter-Korean communication lines, and we certainly believe that this is a positive step," Porter said at a press briefing. "I'll also say that diplomacy and dialogue are essential to achieving complete denuclearization and establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula."

China, North Korea's ally, also weighed in with praise during a press conference in Beijing.

"I noted that the DPRK and the ROK have reached consensus on resuming communication channels, restoring mutual trust and improving relations with one another," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said. "As a close neighbor to the Korean Peninsula, China always supports the DPRK and the ROK in improving their relations and advance reconciliation and cooperation through dialogue and consultation."

"We hope these latest consensus and measures will play a positive role in improving and growing the DPRK-ROK ties," he added.

South, Korea, Unification, Minister, hotline, North, Korea
South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young (R) looks at the inter-Korean hotline during a visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on September 16, 2020. Three years since the two Koreas launched an ambitious peace process backed by the United States, a number of joint initiatives have been left frozen as a result of still-stalled talks. PARK TAE-HYUN/Various SourcesAFP/Getty Images

The U.S. and China have both identified the Korean Peninsula as a potential area of cooperation in the midst of the heated geopolitical rivalry between Washington and Beijing.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman brought up North Korea alongside other regional issues in Afghanistan, Iran and Myanmar, as well as global issues like climate change and nuclear nonproliferation, in which she "affirmed the importance of cooperation" between the U.S. and China.

Earlier this month, a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek that the Biden administration was interested in working with Chinese President Xi Jinping's government on the issue.

"Our policy calls for a calibrated, practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK to make practical progress that increases the security of the United States, our allies and our deployed forces," the spokesperson said at the time. "The United States and the PRC need to work together for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

Sherman, prior to visiting China, met with South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young and other officials in Seoul, where she "expressed U.S. support for inter-Korean dialogue and engagement," according to the State Department.

Both sides were also said to have "emphasized their shared commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" and "reaffirmed that diplomacy and dialogue are essential to achieving complete denuclearization and to establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula."

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin further expounded on the U.S. position during a lecture at the International Institute for Strategic Studies on Tuesday.

"We're also taking a leading role again at the U.N. Security Council," Austin said. That includes enforcing its critical resolutions about nuclear dangers on the Korean Peninsula. And we're taking a calibrated, practical approach that leaves the door open to diplomacy with North Korea...even while we maintain our readiness to deter aggression and to uphold our treaty commitments and the will of the Security Council."

Similar sentiments were expressed by Biden and Moon following their bilateral summit in May.

Moon has established the pursuit of better inter-Korean ties as one of his leading goals. Facing the end of his second and final term with next March's elections, however, his time to make progress on this difficult front is running out.

But as news of the two Koreas getting back in touch was confirmed, the Blue House also revealed that Moon and Kim "have exchanged personal letters several times since last April to communicate on the issue of restoring relations between the two Koreas," and had agreed ahead of time on the resumption of communications.

"The two leaders also agreed to restore mutual trust between the two Koreas as soon as possible and move forward with the relationship again," Blue House spokesperson Park Soo-Hyeon said in a statement Tuesday. "The restoration of the inter-Korean communication line is expected to have a positive effect on the improvement and development of inter-Korean relations in the future."

The South Korean Unification Ministry also shared a desire for more inter-Korean initiatives to come.

"I am glad calls have resumed," the ministry said in a press briefing, citing the South Korean liaison officer. "Just as the inter-Korean communications network has been restored, I hope this will continue to bring good news to the Korean people."