Looking past Trump and his ‘powerful’ nuclear button, the Koreas thaw diplomatic relations

A South Korean government official communicates with a North Korean officer during a phone call on the dedicated communications hotline at the border village of Panmunjom on January 3, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea. CREDIT: South Korean Unification Ministry via Getty Images.

While President Donald Trump was focused on responding to Kim Jong Un’s nuclear taunts by saying the nuclear button on his desk is “bigger and more powerful” (he doesn’t actually have a button), North Korea took a key step in resuming diplomatic talks.

North Korea on Wednesday announced that it would reopen a phone line at the border village of Panmunjom, (known as the “truce village” after U.N. talks were held there in 1951 and 1953). The line is seen as a hotline to South Korea, where officials received a call from the North Wednesday afternoon, Reuters reported. No details were released about the contents of the call, which lasted 20 minutes.

The line had been closed for almost two years.

On Tuesday, just as Trump was reminding North Korea that his nonexistent nuclear button “works,” South Korea proposed discussions with its neighbor on the peninsula in a move to ease tensions over Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

Reuters quotes unnamed U.S. officials who said the United States would not take these talks “seriously” unless they included North Korea walking away from its nuclear program — a condition the country has rejected as a non-starter. A spokesman for South Korean president Moon Jae-in seemed to take the call seriously, however, saying that the reopening of the hotline was “significant.”

Long worried over Trump’s heated exchanges with North Korea — ranging from threatening “fire and fury” and total destruction to schoolyard name-calling  — Seoul has been calling for a diplomatic solution, even if it does not include Trump, who is seen there as a “liability to world peace.” Things seemed to come to a head in early December, when a foreign ministry official said war was just a matter of “when.”

China, which also shares a border with North Korea, began preparing its civilian population for nuclear fallout and started planning for refugee camps at its borders in anticipation of war.

Still, while taunting Trump with his own nuclear button, Kim indicated in his New Year address that he was open to talks with South Korea and is considering allowing North Korean athletes to participate in winter Olympics in Pyongyang next month.

North Korea has been ramping up its missile tests since the summer, insisting that it has the right to a nuclear weapons program as a means of self-preservation against what it views as existential threats — joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises, as well as a heightened military protocols in Japan and China.

Although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has, at times, indicated that the United States is open to talks with North Korea — even if it’s just about the weather — President Trump has made it clear that he feels negotiations are a waste of time.