Thursday 13 December 2018

Pence raises the prospect of US talks with Kim

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, pictured at a military parade in Pyongyang. Photo: KRT via AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, pictured at a military parade in Pyongyang. Photo: KRT via AP

Danielle Demetriou

United States Vice President Mike Pence has raised the prospect of direct talks without preconditions between Washington and North Korea, while continuing to impose tough sanctions on the regime.

His remarks follow widespread criticism of his failure to engage with a high-level North Korean delegation at the opening of South Korea's Winter Olympics at the weekend.

US Vice President Mike Pence. Photo: AP
US Vice President Mike Pence. Photo: AP

Analysts have described this decision as a squandered opportunity.

As he flew out of Seoul on Air Force Two, Mr Pence walked back from Washington's previous hard-line stance that there would be no negotiations before Pyongyang has made some real concessions.

He told the 'Washington Post' that talks could start while the current pressure campaign is ongoing.

"The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearisation.

"So the maximum pressure is going to continue and intensify," he said.

"But if you want to talk, we'll talk."

The change in policy suggests that real progress was made on the sidelines of the Olympic Games.

This comes despite the overt chilliness between Mr Pence and the North's delegation at the games, which included Kim Jong-un's younger sister, Kim Yo-jong.

The new strategy was conceived while he was watching Olympic speed skating heats on Saturday evening, with the South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The South Korean government is currently considering an invitation from Kim Jong-un to attend a rare summit in Pyongyang.

The invite, which was hand-delivered by Kim Yo-jong during a lunch at the presidential palace, has revived hopes of a possible end to a tense and long-running international stand-off with North Korea over its nuclear and weapons programme.

Ms Kim appeared to charm South Korea's media with her near-permanent smile as she conducted a whirlwind round of diplomacy.

She became the first member of the Kim dynasty to visit the South since the Korean War of 1950-1953.

However, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stressed yesterday that it was still too early to judge whether these latest developments could represent the start of a diplomatic process.

"We've said for some time it's really up to the North Koreans to decide when they're ready to engage with us in a sincere way, a meaningful way," Mr Tillerson told reporters during a trip to Egypt.

"They know what has to be on the table for conversations," he added.

Dr Tony Michell, a North Korea expert and managing director of the Euro-Asian Business Consultancy, said that President Moon would be likely to wait until after the mid-June local elections if he decided he would be prepared to go on the trip Pyongyang.

"He has some time and the real question is how far can he modify the American line to allow meaningful talks to take place?" he said.

One negotiating option could be a "freeze for a freeze", he added.

This is where North Korea would put its nuclear and missile tests on hold in exchange for the scaling down of joint US and South Korean military drills, said Dr Michell.

However, Seoul's regional ally Japan has urged caution.

On a trip to Brunei, Taro Kono, Japan's foreign minister, warned the world should remember that North Korea remained committed to its internationally opposed nuclear and missile development programme.

"Without being swayed by [North Korea's] smile diplomacy, Japan will firmly co-ordinate with [the US and South Korea] towards the ultimate goal of denuclearising the Korean Peninsula," he said.

Irish Independent

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