North and South Korea on Friday set up their first ever direct telephone hotline between their leaders, ahead of a historic summit next week that aims to resolve nuclear tensions with Pyongyang and bring peace to the Korean Peninsula.
An official in Seoul confirmed that a successful four minute test call was conducted between South Korea’s presidential office and Pyongyang’s most powerful institution, the State Affairs Commission. “The connection was smooth and the voice quality was very good. It was like calling next door,” he said.
The hotline is intended to prevent misunderstandings between the neighbouring countries, who are still technically at war.
However, it will be used more immediately over the next few days when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in speak for the first time shortly before they meet face to face at a summit on in the demilitarised border zone (DMZ) between their two countries.
The meeting will only be the third summit of its kind since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War and the first since 2007, when Mr Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il met with then South Korean leader, Roh Moo-hyun.
The talks next Friday, in the Peace House on the southern side of the DMZ could prove to be a significant signpost for unprecedented negotiations on North Korea’s denuclearisation between Mr Kim and US President Donald Trump which are anticipated in late May or early June.
The thorny issue of denuclearisation are set to be high on the agenda of next week’s meeting, although the nuts and bolts of what that means will ultimately be thrashed out between Pyongyang and Washington.
President Moon on Thursday sounded an early note of optimism about the prospects for progress, indicating that Mr Kim had dropped his demand that US troops leave the Korean Peninsula in return for giving up his nuclear weapons, potentially removing one of the biggest obstacles to a peace deal.
The US has about 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea, which Pyongyang has long used as a justification for building its nuclear programme as a deterrent.
That view may now be shifting, said Mr Moon. “The North Koreans did not present any conditions that the United States could not accept, such as the withdrawal of American troops in South Korea,” he told the press in Seoul.
“They only talk about an end to hostilities against their country and about getting security guarantees,” he said. “It’s safe to say that the plans for dialogue between the North and the United States could proceed because that has been made clear.”
However, North Korea watchers have warned that diplomatic progress with Pyongyang is likely to be long and laboured, and can only truly be assessed once leaders sit around the table.
Bill Hagerty, the US ambassador to Japan, said Mr Trump would use his own summit to demand also the elimination of the North’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.
He said the issue came up in broader discussions on the North’s weapons capabilities between Mr Trump and Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida earlier this week.
“We had broad-ranging discussions on the topic and it extended beyond denuclearisation to the topics of chemical and biological weapons as well”, Mr Hagerty said.
The North is believed to have large reserves of weaponised chemical and biological agents - including hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, sarin, tabun, chlorine and a number of derivatives of mustard gas - and a number of defectors have claimed the regime has used its own citizens as guinea pigs in weapons tests.
The regime has also been accused by the UN of supplying materials for chemical weapons to Syria.
Another sensitive issue to be negotiated will be the potential signing of a peace treaty between the North and South.
Impoverished North Korea and the wealthier, democratic South are in theory still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
Pyongyang has for many years been engaged in a standoff over its nuclear and missiles programmes, with tensions last year peaking to the point where military conflict with the US appeared to be a credible possibility.
But tensions have eased in recent months following the introduction of severe United Nations-backed sanctions that have squeezed the North Korean economy.
The most recent hotline will complement a border hotline between the two countries which reopened in January after a two year hiatus caused by rising animosity over the North’s nuclear ambitions.
Its reopening followed immediately after a New Year’s speech by Kim Jong-un that proposed negotiations with the South on the easing of tensions and floated the possibility of the North sending a delegation to the February Winter Olympics.