Comments by Vice President Mike Pence suggest the Trump administration may be looking more favourably at direct U.S. diplomatic engagement with North Korea as South Korea considers a rare summit with its neighbour and long-time foe.
Pence said in a newspaper interview the United States and South Korea had agreed, in discussions on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, on terms for further diplomatic engagement with North Korea, first with Seoul and then possibly direct talks with Washington.
The prospect of negotiations comes after months of tension between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, with U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un trading insults and threats of destruction amid tightening sanctions from the United Nations.
Speaking to the Washington Post on his way home from the Games, Pence said Washington would keep up its “maximum pressure campaign” against Pyongyang but at the same time would be open to talks without pre-conditions.
“The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step towards denuclearisation,” Pence was quoted on Sunday as saying. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”
Pence’s overture also appeared aimed at regaining the initiative for the Trump administration after the vice president was widely seen as having been outmanoeuvred in an Olympics public relations battle with Kim’s sister, who charmed her South Korean hosts despite scepticism about the North Korean leader’s sincerity.
Washington was caught off guard by the effectiveness of the North Korean propaganda campaign, U.S. officials said. “Kim ran an end run on us, and he had some success, at least in the opinion section,” one senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But given conflicting signals in the past from Trump and his senior aides over the potential for diplomatic engagement with North Korea, it remained to be seen whether Pence’s remarks would constitute a genuine shift in U.S. strategy.
‘IT’S REALLY UP TO NORTH KOREA’
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Monday it was too early to judge whether the latest developments represented the start of a diplomatic process.
In December, Tillerson offered to start talks with North Korea without pre-conditions, but the State Department later said there would first have to be a “period of calm” in which Pyongyang suspends testing.
“We’ve said for some time it’s really up to the North Koreans to decide when they’re ready to engage with us in a sincere way, a meaningful way,” Tillerson told reporters in Egypt. “They know what has to be on the table for conversations.”
Trump, in office since January 2017, has at times questioned the purpose of further talks with the North after years of negotiations by previous U.S. administrations failed to halt the North’s weapons programs.
Last year, North Korea conducted dozens of missile launches and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions as it pursues its goal of developing a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the United States.
Relations between the two Koreas have improved in recent weeks, with Pyongyang sending its highest-ranking delegation ever to attend the Winter Olympic Games, including Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong.
The visit included an invitation for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has been pushing for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean standoff, to travel to Pyongyang for talks. Such a meeting, if it came about, would mark the first inter-Korea summit since 2007.
A South Korean government official said Seoul’s stance was that separate talks with North Korea by South Korea and the United States should both lead to the denuclearisation of the North while sanctions and pressure continue to be applied.
North Korea, which has not recently expressed any interest in talks with the United States, defends its weapons programs as essential to counter U.S. aggression, saying regular war drills between the United States and the South are preparations for invasion. The South hosts 28,500 U.S. troops, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean war.
During Pence’s visit, Moon assured the vice president he would tell the North Koreans clearly that they would not get economic or diplomatic concessions for just talking, only for taking concrete steps towards denuclearisation, the Washington Post reported.
Moon also told Pence in private that harsh rhetoric from Washington, including threats of military action, was not helpful to South Korean efforts to engage with North Korea, the senior administration official told Reuters.
South Korea said it would seek ways to continue engaging North Korea, including trying to arrange more reunions for families divided by the war and lowering military tensions.
“(The visit by the North Korean delegation) shows that North Korea has a strong will to improve inter-Korean relations and that Pyongyang can make unprecedented and bold measures if deemed necessary,” South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said.
The delegation’s visit intrigued many in South Korea, but also met scepticism about the North’s willingness to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
North Korea has said it will never give up its nuclear deterrent and critics in the South see its participation in the Games as a reward for bad behaviour.
Kim Yo Jong and her delegation spent three days dining with top government officials, watching the opening ceremony and cheering for the united women’s ice hockey team the two Koreas have fielded at this Olympics.
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach will visit North Korea after the Games as part of an agreement between the IOC and North and South Korea, a source within the Olympic movement told Reuters on Monday.
SOURCE: Reuters, Christine Kim and Matt Spetalnick