Pence Raises Prospect of U.S.-N. Korea Talks, Seoul Seeks to Lower Tensions

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence shakes hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in before their meeting at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday. (Reuters/Kim Hee-chul/Pool)

The United States may be looking more favorably at diplomatic engagement with North Korea, possibly holding dialogue, as South Korea pushes forward with plans to establish grounds for a rare summit between the two Koreas.

Vice President Mike Pence said in a newspaper interview that the United States and South Korea have agreed on terms for further diplomatic engagement with North Korea, first with Seoul and then possibly leading to direct talks with Washington without preconditions.

The prospect of talks comes after months of tension between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington over North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, with U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un trading insults and threats amid tightening sanctions from the United Nations.

Relations between the two Koreas improved in recent weeks, with Pyongyang agreeing to send its highest ranking delegation ever to attend the Winter Olympic Games, being held in the South Korean resort of Pyeongchang.

Speaking to the Washington Post aboard Air Force Two on his way home from the Games, Pence said Washington would keep up its “maximum pressure campaign” against Pyongyang but would be open to possible talks at the same time.

“The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” 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 had traveled to the Olympics to counter what Washington said was the North’s crude attempts to hijack the event with a propaganda campaign.

South Korea said it will seek ways to continue engaging North Korea including trying to arrange more reunions for families divided by the Korean War and aiming to lower military tensions.

The statement from the Ministry of Unification came after the North Korean delegation concluded its three-day visit, which included an invitation for South Korean President Moon Jae-in to travel to Pyongyang for talks.

“[The visit] 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,” the ministry said.

The visit of the delegation, which included North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong, intrigued many in South Korea, but also met skepticism about the North’s sincerity and willingness to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

“Although many Koreans are welcoming North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are also significant criticism and concerns both domestically and internationally,” the statement said.

During the visit, Kim Yo Jong had delivered a letter from her brother asking South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang at his earliest convenience. President Moon had replied, “Let’s create the environment for that to be able to happen,” according to the presidential Blue House.

Such a meeting, if it came about, would mark the first inter-Korean summit since 2007.

On Sunday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said it was too early to tell whether a diplomatic detente between the two Koreas at the Olympics would lead to results, but the move had not driven a wedge between Washington and Seoul.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told a regular briefing that Seoul was still in close consultations with the United States over its North Korea policy.

The two Koreas are still technically at war after the 1950-53 conflict on the Korean peninsula ended in a ceasefire and not a truce.

The Unification Ministry said steps regarding the improvement of ties would be led by the two Koreas, but also in cooperation with related countries and the support of the international community.

“Under a strong position for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, Korea will faithfully implement the international sanctions on North Korea, while also adhering to the principle of resolution through peaceful means,” the statement said.

“If there is certain progress to set the conditions for denuclearization, a full-fledged progress in inter-Korean relations will become possible,” it said, without elaborating.