Every day, South Korea's Unification Ministry sends officials to the border village of Panmunjom to call North Korea at 9am and 4pm. For more than 18 months, the North hasn't picked up. As North Korea steps up its nuclear weapons tests and threats, the Unification Ministry, dedicated to improving relations with the North and eventual peaceful reunification, faces an almost existential crisis. Not too long ago the ministry was one of Seoul's most powerful departments, reports the AP. It had central roles in engineering two historic summits between the leaders of the two Koreas and launching joint economic projects in the 2000s. That is mostly gone after nearly a decade of hard-line conservative rule in the South, and a rapid expansion of missile and nuclear weapons development in the North.
The most important decisions on North Korea now come from the South Korean president's office and the defense and foreign ministries. The Unification Ministry has been mostly left to issuing boilerplate denouncements of Pyongyang's weapons tests and propaganda outbursts. The election of a liberal president in May, ending nine years of conservative government, briefly raised hopes. But Pyongyang has so far ignored a Unification Ministry proposal in July to hold inter-Korean military and Red Cross talks. In changed circumstances, it is less clear what the Unification Ministry should, or can do. Jeong Se-hyun, who served as unification minister under two South Korean presidents, says "the ministry has ... to keep placing calls on the Panmunjom telephone. The situation can quickly change and North Korea could feel the need for dialogue."