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South Korea Urges US Support for North Korea Nuclear Talks

Vice chairman of the North Korean ruling party's central committee Kim Yong Chol and Ri Son-kwon, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, arrive in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 25, 2018.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is continuing efforts to broker talks between the U.S. and North Korea to reduce tensions over the North’s nuclear program, despite facing reluctance from Washington and Pyongyang, and increasing concerns at home.

On Monday, North Korea expressed a willingness for talks with the United States, but did not clarify whether Pyongyang is prepared to address halting and eventually dismantling its threatening nuclear program. The support for dialogue came from Kim Yong Chol, the controversial head of the visiting North Korean delegation to the PyeongChang Olympics closing ceremony. Kim has been accused of orchestrating a North Korean torpedo attack on a South Korean warship in 2010 that killed 46 sailors.

U.S. President Donald Trump responded to the North’s sudden openness to dialogue with skepticism on Monday, saying, " We'll see what happens" and that the "right conditions" must first be in place before talks can proceed.

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South Korea’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday said it is working to address Washington’s concerns.

"Our government will continue to make efforts to persuade North Korea to respond promptly to the U.S., North Korea dialogue, while at the same time closely communicating and consulting with the U.S. on the future direction of North Korea’s nuclear diplomacy," said Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk.

Conflicting strategies

While North Korea now says it is willing to talk, its defiant rhetoric, and the numerous missile launches and two nuclear tests conducted in the last year, indicate a more threatening posture. Kim Jong Un responded to increasing international sanctions by declaring his country a nuclear weapons state, and set upon developing an operational intercontinental ballistic missile capability to target the U.S. mainland.

The Trump administration responded with a "maximum pressure" campaign, imposing economic sanctions, along with an emphasis on the threat of military action, if necessary, to force the Kim government to give up its nuclear program.

Last week the President issued new unilateral sanctions on companies and vessels linked to North Korean shipping trade to further restrict Pyongyang’s ability to bypass sanctions, by obtaining oil and selling coal, using ship to ship transfers.

Trump’s insistence that conditions first be met before talks can proceed supports his "maximum pressure" approach, but it also seemed to pull back from the position voiced by Vice President Mike Pence after he visited South Korea to lead the U.S. Olympic delegation for the opening ceremony. Pence said the U.S. would be open to exploratory talks without conditions, while maintaining sanctions pressure.

The mixed messages coming out of Washington may suggest that Trump has not been entirely supportive of President Moon’s very assertive diplomatic outreach to engage North Korea during the Olympics.

"I think the United States government was not completely happy with the degree to which the U.S. government was consulted or not consulted before the South Koreans invited in the North Korean officials and athletes into the games," said Denny Roy, an Asia Pacific security expert with the East-West Center in Honolulu.

Athletes from North Korea and South Korea during the closing ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, February 25, 2018
Athletes from North Korea and South Korea during the closing ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, February 25, 2018

Editorial caution

Moon’s critics at home also voiced concern that Pyongyang is cooperating with Seoul in hopes of dividing the U.S., South Korea alliance, and to weaken international support for sanctions, without making any significant concession to end its nuclear program.

South Korean newspapers on Tuesday urged President Moon to proceed with caution in pursuing his engagement approach to North Korea. The Korea Herald, in an editorial said, "Korea must be denuclearized, but South Korea must not rush dialogue" before the North fully commits.

An editorial in The Korea Times said, it is "too early to expect" the U.S. and North Korea to "start a serious and meaningful dialogue," but did support exploratory talks.

And a Korea JoongAng Daily editorial said, "we cannot weaken sanctions when North Korea does not show genuine actions toward denuclearization."

Without diplomatic progress, tensions on the Korean Peninsula are likely to soon rise again. North Korea has not conducted any missile or nuclear tests in the last few months. The U.S. and South Korea also postponed joint military exercises during the Olympics. But the drills are expected to resume sometime in April. On Tuesday the North Korean official news agency KCNA said, "If the U.S. resumes the joint military exercises, we will resolutely counter them."

Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.