The two Koreas opened a hotline between their leaders on Friday, a week before a summit between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and the South’s President Moon Jae-in in the Demilitarized Zone.
The line links the presidential Blue House in Seoul with the Pyongyang office of the nuclear-armed North’s State Affairs Commission, which Kim chairs – one of his most important titles.
“The historic connection of the hotline between the leaders of the two Koreas has just been established,” said senior Blue House official Youn Kun-young, adding that a test conversation between officials lasted 4 minutes and 19 seconds.
“The connection was smooth and the quality of connection was also very good,” he said. “It felt like talking to a neighbour.”
Geographically the two are next door to each other, but the peninsula has been divided for 70 years, with no post or telephone communications between them for ordinary civilians since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
The hotline, which enables direct communications between Kim and Moon, is the latest step in a whirlwind of diplomacy on and around the Korean peninsula, triggered by the Winter Olympics in the South.
The two leaders are due to meet on Friday on the southern side of the DMZ, in what will be only the third inter-Korean summit since war ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving them technically still in a state of conflict.
Seoul is pushing for a declaration that the war is over as a prelude to the signing of a treaty, with Moon declaring Thursday it was a goal that “must be pursued”.
US President Donald Trump, who is expected to hold his own much-anticipated summit with Kim later, previously offered his “blessing” for the two Koreas to discuss a treaty.
Everything hinges, though, on the question of the North’s nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang – which last year carried out its most powerful nuclear test to date and launched intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States – has long insisted that it needs them to defend against a US invasion.
It has since offered to negotiate over them in exchange for security guarantees, but the phrase sometimes used, denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, has long been code for the withdrawal of US troops in the South and the end of its nuclear umbrella over its security ally — something unthinkable in Washington.
The US, on the other hand, is adamant that it will accept nothing less than the North’s complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation.