SEOUL – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hosted a welcome banquet Monday for envoys dispatched by South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the start of a rare two-day visit to Pyongyang that was expected to focus on how to ease a standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and restart talks between the North and the United States.
The 10-member South Korean delegation is led by Moon’s national security director, Chung Eui-yong. The meeting with Kim, which was announced by Moon’s office, marked the first time South Korean officials had met with the young North Korean leader in person since he took power after his dictator father’s death in late 2011. The delegation’s trip was the first known high-level visit by South Korean officials to the North in about a decade.
It wasn’t immediately clear what they would discuss or what else is on the itinerary of South Korean envoys’ trip. But hopes are high that the Koreas can extend the good feelings created by North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea last month. Kim’s barrage of weapons tests over the last year has raised fears of war.
Both North Korea and the United States have expressed willingness to talk, but U.S. President Donald Trump demands the North “denuke” first.
The North, which has vowed never to give up its nuclear deterrent against U.S. hostility, says it will not sit down to talks under preconditions.
Reclusive North Korea, which has made no secret of its pursuit of a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the mainland United States in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, is also concerned over a joint U.S.-South Korea military exercise, which it sees as a preparation for war.
South Korean officials have said the drill will start next month as planned, after being postponed for the Winter Olympics held last month in the South.
“We will deliver President Moon Jae-in’s wish to bring about denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and permanent peace by extending the goodwill and better inter-Korean relations created by the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics,” Chung said at the presidential Blue House before he left.
The delegation includes National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon and Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung.
Beyond the dinner, the delegation had also scheduled a meeting for early Tuesday, said one Moon administration official, who sought anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
The government hopes the visit will create “a positive atmosphere,” Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told a regular briefing.
The envoys will discuss with North Korean counterparts the release of three Korean-Americans detained in the isolated nation, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported Monday.
They will then travel to Washington to discuss the results, presidential spokesman Yoon Young-chan had said Sunday, adding that South Korea would also closely coordinate with neighboring China and Japan. Moon wants Kim to first freeze the weapons program to lay the ground for disarmament talks.
Ahead of the trip Monday, Japan urged South Korea to push the North toward high-level talks aimed at riding the regime of its nuclear weapons.
“It is extremely important to call on North Korea to commit to abandoning its nuclear and missile programs in complete, verifiable and irreversible ways and taking concrete steps toward that goal,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.
The top Japanese government spokesman said Seoul should keep in mind that past inter-Korean talks have not prevented the North from developing a nuclear arsenal.
Japan has remained wary of dialogue between the two Koreas throughout the recent inter-Korean thaw, warning that the world must not accept the North as a nuclear power.
The delegation hopes to speak with North Korean officials on starting dialogue between the North and the United States as well as other countries, he added.
The presidential Blue House said the high-profile delegation is to reciprocate the trip by Kim Yo Jong, who became the first member of the North’s ruling Kim family to come to South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Kim Yo Jong and other senior North Korean officials came to the start and close of the Olympics, during which they met Moon and conveyed Kim Jong Un’s invitation to visit Pyongyang and expressed their willingness to hold talks with the United States.
Thawing relations between the neighbors have prompted speculation of future direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang after months of tension and exchanges of bellicose insults between Trump and Kim Jong Un fueled fears of war.
North Korea has not carried out any weapons tests since late November, when it tested its largest intercontinental ballistic missile. Inter-Korean talks began after Kim Jong Un said in his New Year’s address that he wanted to engage the South.
Pyongyang has since sent athletes to participate in the Olympics, as well as a high-ranking delegation that included Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong.
Impoverished North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
The North regularly threatens to destroy the South and its main ally, the United States, which stations 28,500 troops in the South, a legacy of the Korean War, and carries out regular joint military exercises.
North Korea has repeatedly said it won’t put its nuclear program on a negotiating table, while the United States has made it clear that it doesn’t want talks for the sake of talks and said all options, including military measures, are on the table.
Trump said talks with North Korea will happen only “under the right conditions.” Moon has yet to accept Kim’s invitation to visit Pyongyang for what would be the third inter-Korean summit talks. The past two summit talks, one in 2000 and the other in 2007, were held between Kim’s late father Kim Jong Il and two liberal South Korean presidents.
Some experts say the North’s outreach during the Olympics was an attempt to use improved ties with South Korea as a way to break out of diplomatic isolation and weaken U.S.-led international sanctions and pressure on the country.
“Neither sanctions nor provocations nor threats can ever undermine our position of a nuclear weapons state,” the North’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said recently.
“Hoping that the DPRK would abandon its nuclear programs is as foolish an act as trying to wish seas to get dried up,” it said, referring to itself by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.