North Korea willing to talk with U.S., South’s leader says

Latest sign that the two Koreas were working toward political détente
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (left) and Kim Yong-chol (second from right) of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (left) and Kim Yong-chol (second from right) of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party.

SEOUL, South Korea — President Moon Jae-in of South Korea said on Sunday that high-ranking officials from North Korea told him their country was willing to start a dialogue with the United States, a potential diplomatic victory for Moon, who has been urging the two countries to talk.

Kim Yong Chol, a vice chairman of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, expressed that willingness when he met with Moon shortly before the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Moon’s office said. Kim led an eight-member North Korean delegation to the ceremony, in the latest sign that the two Koreas were working toward a political détente after years of rising tensions over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

“President Moon noted that North Korea-United States dialogue must take place soon in order to improve South-North Korean relations and to find a fundamental solution to the Korean Peninsula issue,” said Moon’s spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom. “To this, the North Korean delegates responded that the North was quite willing to start talks with the United States and agreed that relations between North and South Korea and those between the North and the United States should develop simultaneously.”

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But it was too early to take the North’s comments as a major breakthrough.

On Friday, Washington announced harsh new sanctions against North Korea, and President Donald Trump alluded to the threat of military action, saying, “If the sanctions don’t work, we’ll have to go Phase 2.”

On Sunday, North Korea called the news sanctions an “act of war.”

Later on Sunday the White House said in a statement that “denuclearization must be the result of any dialogue with North Korea.”

Moon has been working tirelessly to steer the United States and North Korea away from what he considered a collision course, urging them to open talks.

U.S. officials and some analysts suspected that North Korea was creating an inter-Korean thaw to soften its image and weaken international sanctions. But Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said that North Korea’s primary strategy was not to avoid sanctions but to get the United States to accept it as a nuclear weapons state in return for a freeze on its nuclear program.

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