North Korea expressed a willingness to hold talks with the United States, boosting hopes that the recent thaw in tensions on the divided peninsula may extend beyond the Olympics.
The White House responded that it will see if the message “represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization.”
It was too soon to know if the apparent olive branch would lead to a breakthrough in the standoff over the growing threat from the North.
The communist state has consistently maintained that it’s nuclear weapons program is not up for negotiation.
Just two days ago, the U.S. Treasury Department slapped a tough new round of sanctions on several companies and ships accused of illicit trading with the North. The communist state decried the new sanctions and said that any blockade would be considered an “act of war.”
But the offer was a diplomatic victory for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has said he hoped the detente fostered by the Winter Games would lead to broader talks including Washington and Pyongyang.
The latest twist occurred during a meeting ahead of the Olympics closing ceremony on Sunday between Moon and chief North Korean delegate Kim Yong Chol, a vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s central committee.
Kim Yong Chol is also a former general and spymaster who has been accused of being behind two deadly attacks on South Korea in 2010, including the sinking of a ship that killed nearly 50 sailors. He has been blacklisted by Seoul, but the government decided to allow him to attend the Olympics in the spirit of holding a peaceful event.
During their meeting, Moon called for U.S.-North Korea dialogue to be held “at an early date” as a condition for improvement in the inter-Korean relationship, according to his office. It added that Kim agreed and said his country “has ample intentions of holding a North Korea-U.S. dialogue.”
The statement followed an invitation for an inter-Korean summit that was delivered by the North Korean leader’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, who led the delegation to the opening ceremony.
The South Korean leader has not accepted, urging the North to create the conditions necessary for such a visit and to actively engage with the United States.
He and the North Koreans later attended the elaborate festivities marking the end of the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang.
Photos captured the remarkable image of one of North Korea’s highest officials seated behind President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and in the same row as Gen. Vincent Brooks, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, in the VIP box.
In dealing with North Korea, Trump has bounced between threatening military action and saying he would be willing to talk to the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, under the right conditions.
“We will see if Pyongyang’s message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “In the meantime, the United States and the world must continue to make clear that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are a dead end.”
The latest U.S. sanctions were part of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at getting the North to give up its nuclear weapons.
Trump warned over the weekend that if sanctions don’t work, the United States would move to a new phase that could be “very rough” and “very unfortunate for the world.”
The Treasury Department said it was barring U.S. business transactions with nine international shipping companies from China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Panama, along with nine of their vessels.
It also blacklisted 16 North Korea shipping companies and 19 North Korean-flagged vessels.
The unilateral U.S. moves are in addition to several others imposed by the U.N. Security Council.
Despite the measures, North Korea has made strong advances in its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon that could target the United States. It test-fired several missiles and conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test last year.
North Korea lashed out at the latest sanctions in a report on state-run media earlier Sunday, noting Kim Jong Un had agreed to participate in the Feb. 9-25 Winter Games and engage in rare talks with the South.
“Thanks to our supreme leadership’s noble love for the nation and strong determination for peace, long-awaited inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation have been realized and the Olympics took place successfully by the inter-Korean collaboration,” the Korean Central News Agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying. “However, on the eve of closing of the Olympics, United States is running amok to bring another dark cloud of confrontation and war over the Korean peninsula by announcing enormous sanctions.”
The North warned that it “will consider any type of blockade an act of war against us.”
North Korea frequently reacts to measures against it with bellicose rhetoric.
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