|National Intelligence Service Chief Park Jie-won speaks during a meeting with lawmakers at the National Assembly in Seoul, Wednesday. Yonhap|
A recent reference by National Intelligence Service chief Park Jie-won to "significant communication" taking place between South and North Korea around the time of the South Korea-U.S. summit last month has left Pyongyang watchers scrambling to find out the North's real intentions.
Inter-Korean ties have been deadlocked since February 2019, when a summit between North Korea and the United States ended without a deal, as evidenced by the North cutting off all government and military communication channels with the South, and blowing up an inter-Korean liaison office in the border city of Gaeseong in June 2020.
On Wednesday, South Korea's top intelligence official told lawmakers in the National Assembly's Intelligence Committee that inter-Korean communication took place before or after the May 21 summit between President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C.
However, he did not specify when they communicated or which channels they used.
"What we found out was that communication channels between the NIS and the United Front Department (UFD) are still alive," said Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University. The UFD is in charge of the North's inter-Korean affairs.
"However, the NIS chief was not specific on the details, so we can only guess that he may have explained the results of the Moon-Biden summit, or U.S. policy toward the North, in the abstract."
He added: "Given that the NIS head unveiled the communication taking place, while the North Korean side did not issue a negative response, we can deduce that the North did not reject the South's call for communication."
Cho Han-beom, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said the significant communication was likely about the South once again brokering a meeting between the U.S. and the North.
In 2018 and 2019, the Moon administration brokered summits between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and then U.S. President Donald Trump.
"Both sides are open to talks. The Biden administration has openly repeated its commitment to diplomacy with North Korea, while the North has approached the U.S. on the principle of strength for strength and goodwill for goodwill, which means, should Washington be nice to Pyongyang, it could return to the negotiating table," he said.
"The question is what they can swap before deciding to resume talks, rather than whether they will meet."
The Kim regime wants an official end to the Korean War and sanctions relief from the U.S., while the Biden administration is calling on the North to scrap its nuclear weapons, according to Cho.
"A face-to-face meeting between the U.S. and the North is too risky to hold at this point, so the South Korean government is doing preliminary work to pave the way for the two sides to hold working-level talks," Cho said.
"In that respect, the NIS chief traveled to Washington late last month to discuss the issue."
During the meeting with lawmakers, the NIS director said that the North Korean regime may issue a "fiery statement" on the results of the Moon-Biden summit, which touched on its human rights violations, but he added that it would be simply a rite of passage, and the North would eventually decide to resume dialogue with the U.S.
"North Korea is more desperate to hold talks with the U.S. as its economy has been crippled by sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic," Cho said.
Ten days after the South Korea-U.S. summit, the North issued a response, but experts believed that it toned down its complaint by expressing it in the format of a Korean Central News Agency article and not by senior officials, to leave the door open for dialogue with the U.S.