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Washington is willing to talk with North Korea, the South’s president says

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (far left, front row), US Vice President Mike Pence (second right, front row), and Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un (second right, back row) sat in close proximity the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
PATRICK SEMANSKY/AFP/Getty Images
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (far left, front row), US Vice President Mike Pence (second right, front row), and Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un (second right, back row) sat in close proximity the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

SEOUL — US officials told South Korea’s president they were willing to hold direct negotiations with North Korea, a spokesman for President Moon Jae-in said 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 Moon. Since the vice president’s departure 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,” Moon’s spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom said.

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Dialogue with the North has been used by successive US 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.

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President Trump recently described 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, 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,” 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 Moon, who has hoped to bring North Korea and the United States to the negotiating table.

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When Pence and 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,” Pence told reporters 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,” Pence said.

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