Washington Is Willing to Talk With North Korea, the South’s President Says

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SEOUL, South Korea — American officials told South Korea’s president they were willing to hold direct negotiations with North Korea, a spokesman for President Moon Jae-in said on Tuesday, indicating a shift in the Trump administration’s policy.

The statement came just days after Vice President Mike Pence visited Pyeongchang, South Korea, which is hosting the Winter Olympics, and met with Mr. Moon. Since the vice president’s departure on Saturday, reports of an understanding between Washington and Seoul on the possibility of dialogue have appeared in the news media, but South Korean officials would not confirm them until Tuesday.

“The United States too looks positively at South-North Korean dialogue and has expressed its willingness to start dialogue with the North,” Mr. Moon’s spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom, told reporters.

Dialogue with the North has been used by successive American administrations as a carrot — paired with the stick of sanctions — in the hopes of getting the isolated nation to end its nuclear weapons program. Until recently, Trump administration officials insisted no such meetings would take place until the North had first taken steps toward disarmament.

President Trump recently described Mr. Moon’s overtures to the North Koreans as “appeasement.” And when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in December that the United States was willing to hold a “meeting without precondition,” the White House insisted his comments were premature.

But in an interview with The Washington Post after he left South Korea, Mr. Pence suggested that the United States was open to a meeting, even indicating that it would enter talks without preconditions.

“So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify,” Mr. Pence said of the punishing sanctions imposed on the North by the United Nations. “But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”

Agreeing to talks before the North Koreans have demonstrated a willingness to dismantle their weapons program would be a subtle but potentially significant shift in Washington’s approach, and a win for Mr. Moon, who has hoped to bring North Korea and the United States to the negotiating table.

When Mr. Pence and Mr. Moon met last week, the allies apparently found common ground: They would agree to talks without set rules, but they will continue to use sanctions as leverage.

“President Moon and I reflected last night on the need to do something fundamentally different,” Mr. Pence told reporters on Friday after meeting with the South Korean leader.

The allies, he said, would demand “at the outset of any new dialogue or negotiations” that North Korea “put denuclearization on the table and take concrete steps with the world community to dismantle, permanently and irreversibly, their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”

“Then, and only then, will the world community consider negotiating and making changes in the sanctions regime that’s placed on them today,” Mr. Pence said.

During Mr. Pence’s trip to South Korea, Kim Yo-jong, the sister and special envoy of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, also visited the South as part of an Olympic delegation. She extended an invitation from her brother to Mr. Moon for a summit meeting in North Korea.

Mr. Moon, who invited athletes from the North to participate in the Olympics — where they marched with South Korean athletes under a united Korean flag during the opening ceremony — has seen the Games as an important step toward promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula.

If Mr. Pence’s comments reflect official White House policy, it could mean that the Trump administration has been heartened by a lull in North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in recent weeks and an emerging détente between the two Koreas.

North Korea has not conducted any major weapons tests since Nov. 29, when it launched an intercontinental ballistic missile powerful enough to reach the mainland United States.

Even if talks start between North Korea and United States, the gap between the countries remains wide.

North Korea has said that it would not bargain away its weapons, and would only discuss mutual arms reduction.

Some analysts said North Korea would never give up its nuclear weapons, and that it would use any future talks with Washington to be accepted as a nuclear power and win large economic concessions, in return for agreeing not to advance its nuclear weapons program any further.

Others analysts believe the North is willing to talk because it desperately wants to find a way to ease the sanctions that have taken a toll on its economy.

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NYT > Asia Pacific

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