South Korea’s Moon urges U.S. and North to lower threshold for talks

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

South Korean President Moon Jae-in urged the United States and North Korea to each cede some ground in an attempt to broker talks between the two countries centered around resolving the nuclear crisis as Pyongyang reiterated its openness to dialogue and Washington said it was taking a wait-and-see approach.

“The United States needs to lower its bar for dialogue and the North, too, must show its willingness to denuclearize,” Moon was quoted as saying by the presidential Blue House.

“It’s important the United States and North Korea sit down together quickly,” Moon said.

Such moves, he added, would be an important first step in moving toward a solution to the nuclear crisis that has roiled the Korean Peninsula and seen tensions hit fresh highs.

Kim Jong Chol, who led the North Korean delegation in South Korea for the closing ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, said Monday that the reclusive state is willing to hold talks with the United States, noting the door for dialogue between the two countries remains open, the South’s Yonhap news agency reported, quoting a Blue House official.

“Kim said the door remains open for dialogue with the United States,” the official said. “He said the North has also repeatedly expressed such a stance.”

The remarks by Kim, who was accused by Seoul of being behind the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010 that killed 46 sailors, came a day after he told Moon in a surprise meeting ahead of the Olympics ceremony that Pyongyang has “ample intentions of holding talks with the United States.”

Earlier Monday, Seoul said it hopes for “constructive” talks between North Korea and the United States.

The U.S., however, has taken a wait-and-see approach with North Korea, remaining firm that its denuclearization was the endgame in solving the crisis.

“We will see if Pyongyang’s message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization,” U.S. press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement Monday released ahead of Moon and Kim’s latest comments about lowering the bar for talks.

Sanders added that the U.S., South Korea and the international community “broadly agree” that denuclearization must be the ultimate result of any dialogue with North Korea.

“As President Trump has said, there is a brighter path available for North Korea if it chooses denuclearization,” Sanders said.

Washington has repeatedly said that the issue of denuclearization must be a part of any talks with Pyongyang. The North has asserted that its nuclear program, which it sees as a deterrent to invasion, is nonnegotiable.

At the games’ closing ceremony, Kim sat in a VIP box that put him within speaking distance of members of the U.S. delegation led by Ivanka Trump, the daughter of President Trump, and included Allison Hooker, the national security council adviser for Korean issues.

While Ivanka Trump sat near Kim, she didn’t appear to greet him.

“There was no interaction with the North Korean delegation,” media reports quoted a senior White House official as saying in a statement. “The U.S. presidential delegation’s attendance at the closing ceremonies was the culmination of a successful trip where we celebrated the Olympic Games, U.S. athletes and our strong alliance with South Korea.”

The North’s delegation also included Choe Kang Il, the deputy director-general for North American affairs at the North’s Foreign Ministry, raising hopes of talks.

But Ivanka Trump wrapped up her visit Monday morning and Hooker was seen accompanying her at the airport, Yonhap reported. A U.S. Embassy official said that all the delegates appeared to be leaving the same day.

Kim and his delegation were scheduled to leave Tuesday, just as North and South Korean officials gather on the North’s side of the Panmunjom truce village to discuss Pyongyang’s attendance at the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics.

U.S. officials said last week that Vice President Mike Pence was prepared to hold a historic meeting with top North Korean officials during his visit to the Olympics opening ceremony earlier this month but was rebuffed by the North at the last minute.

Observers had anticipated a possible meeting between Pence and North Korean officials, including Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister and close adviser of leader Kim Jong Un. Such an encounter would have been the highest-level interaction between the Trump administration and the Kim regime.

Washington, which describes its approach to Pyongyang as “maximum pressure and engagement,” announced a raft of new sanctions against it Friday.

Pyongyang slammed those measures — which target more than 50 North Korea-linked shipping companies, vessels and trade businesses — as an “act of war,” the North’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. The North said the sanctions are aimed at completely blocking its maritime trade amid reports that U.S. officials are pushing for an even further bolstered “maritime crackdown.”

“Like we have said repeatedly, we would consider any restrictions on us as an act of war, and we will stop the U.S. if it really has the nerves to confront us in a ‘rough’ manner,” the North’s Foreign Ministry added.

Pyongyang, which has been slapped with a series of tough U.N. and unilateral sanctions, has seen its ties with Seoul thaw amid a charm offensive that saw North Korean leader Kim Jong Un dispatch his younger sister to the games to deliver an offer to host a summit with South Korea’s Moon.

But the prospect of talks in the wake of the Olympic detente also face stiff headwinds from planned joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which the North views as a rehearsal for invasion.

Seoul and the Pentagon said last week plans for the postponed exercises will be announced by the end of next month.

The North has conducted a spate of test launches over the last year, including of a longer-range missile experts believe is capable of striking most of the U.S. It also unleashed its most powerful nuclear blast to date in September, in what it claimed was a test of a thermonuclear weapon.

“I suspect the afterglow won’t last for very long given the structural realities of the situation,” said Andrew O’Neil, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Griffith University in Australia, noting that Pyongyang would not give up its nuclear weapons and that Trump remains committed to neutralizing any nuclear strike force with the capability of hitting the continental United States.

“In a formal sense, the positions of Pyongyang and Washington are unbridgeable so it’s difficult to see how the current trajectory can be sustained without avoiding war,” O’Neil said. “Yet, equally, no side wants war, so there are also in-built incentives to engage in dialogue.”

Ultimately, O’Neil said, “it is very difficult to tell where U.S. policy is at right now, but it could be somewhere between these two interpretations.”