By KIM TONG-HYUNG, Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Leaders of rival Koreas have exchanged letters expressing hope for an improvement in bilateral relations, which have crumbled for the past three years amid a freeze in nuclear talks and North Korea’s accelerated weapons development.

North Korean state media said leader Kim Jong Un received a personal letter from outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday and responded Thursday with his own letter appreciating Moon’s peace efforts during his tenure. .

Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said on Friday their exchange of letters showed their “deep trust”. Moon’s office also confirmed that he had exchanged letters with Kim but did not immediately say what was said.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen since a series of North Korean weapons tests this year, including its first test flight of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 in March, reigniting a nuclear strategy aimed at forcing the United States to accept it as a nuclear power. and remove crippling sanctions.

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South Korea’s military also detected signs that North Korea was rebuilding tunnels at a nuclear testing ground it had partially dismantled weeks before Kim’s first meeting with then-President Donald Trump. Trump in June 2018, a possible indicator that the country is preparing to resume testing of nuclear explosives.

Moon met with Kim three times in 2018 and lobbied to help arrange Kim’s meetings with Trump. But diplomacy never recovered from the failed second Kim-Trump meeting in 2019 in Vietnam, where the Americans rejected North Korea’s demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for the dismantling of an aging nuclear facility, which would have amounted to a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

Kim has since pledged to bolster his nuclear deterrent to counter “gangster-like” US pressure and has accelerated his weapons development despite limited resources and pandemic-related difficulties.

North Korea has also severed cooperation with the Moon government while expressing anger at the continued U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which have been halted in recent years to promote diplomacy with the North, and the Seoul’s inability to extract concessions from Washington on its behalf.

KCNA said Moon wrote in his letter to Kim that he would continue to support Korea’s reunification efforts based on their joint statements for inter-Korean peace issued after their meetings in 2018.

Kim and Moon shared the view that “inter-Korean relations would improve and develop as desired and expected by the (Korean) nation if (the North and the South) make unremitting efforts with hope,” KCNA said. .

South Korea’s next leader may take a tougher line on Pyongyang. Conservative President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol, who takes office on May 10, rejected pursuing “talks for talks’ sake” with North Korea and pledged to strengthen Seoul’s alliance with Washington and to resume their large-scale military exercises to counter the nuclear threat from the North.

Analysts say North Korea is also likely to step up its weapons demonstrations in the coming weeks or months to force a response from the Biden administration, which has focused on Russia’s war on Israel. Ukraine and a rivalry with China.

Biden’s special envoy for North Korea, Sung Kim, traveled to Seoul this week for meetings with senior South Korean officials and said they agreed on the need for a response. strong to counter the “destabilizing behavior” of North Korea.

After maintaining a conciliatory tone for years, Moon’s government has come out more strongly against North Korea’s weapons tests this year, criticizing Kim’s government for ending its self-imposed test suspension. long-range missiles and urging a return to diplomacy.

Seoul also accused North Korea of ​​destroying South Korean-owned facilities at the Diamond Mountain resort where they held tours together until 2008. In 2019, Kim called South Korean facilities of “shabby” and ordered their destruction, although the work was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

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