Trump says U.S. can talk with North Korea but ‘only under right conditions’

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. President Donald Trump has weighed in on the prospect of talks with nuclear-armed North Korea, saying Monday that such a move would come “only under the right conditions,” a refrain that came just a day after a top official from the North said for the second time that Pyongyang was open to dialogue with Washington.

“They want to talk. And we want to talk also, only under the right conditions. Otherwise, we’re not talking,” Trump told a meeting of U.S. governors at the White House in Washington.

“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said. “That’s my attitude: We’ll see what happens. But something has to be done.”

Trump did not elaborate on what conditions might be needed to facilitate talks with the isolated regime of Kim Jong Un, but White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons would be key.

“Anything that would be discussed would have to be solely on the focus of them agreeing to denuclearize the peninsula,” Sanders said. “That would be the primary factor in whether or not we would have any conversation with them.”

Washington and Pyongyang have been at loggerheads over the denuclearization issue, with the U.S. saying any talks must be centered on that and North Korea vowing never to give up its “treasured nuclear sword.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has worked to break this impasse, holding talks this week with top North Korean representatives, including Kim Jong Chol, who is accused by Seoul of being behind the sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010 that killed 46 sailors.

On Monday, Moon took the dramatic step of urging the United States and North Korea to each cede some ground in an attempt to broker talks.

“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.

Moon has twice secured pledges from the North that it is willing to sit down with the U.S., though it remains uncertain what, if anything, Pyongyang will demand to bring such a scenario to fruition.

Kim Jong Chol, who led the North Korean delegation in South Korea for Sunday’s closing ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, said Monday that the reclusive state is willing to hold talks with the United States, noting for the second time in two days that the door for dialogue between the two countries remains open.

“Kim … said the North has also repeatedly expressed such a stance,” an official with South Korea’s presidential Blue House said.

The remarks by Kim 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.”

Kim returned to the North on Tuesday.

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 in February 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.”

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. Moon has yet to formally respond to the invitation.

With the Olympics over and the Paralympics scheduled to run from March 8 to 18, Washington and Seoul now have a limited window to lay any groundwork for dialogue before the issue of postponed joint U.S.-South Korean military drills begins to dominate the discussions.

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

The North’s ruling party newspaper on Monday slammed the prospect of resumed joint drills as “a vicious challenge to the entire Korean nation hoping for detente and durable peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

“If the U.S. resumes the joint military exercises, we will resolutely counter them,” the official Rodong Sinmun said in a commentary.

North Korea 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.

The Trump administration has repeatedly said that “all options remain on the table,” including military action, to rein in North Korea’s nuclear drive — a prospect that has stoked concern in Seoul and Tokyo.