Updated 1:20 p.m.
The North Korean government has made an overture to the U.S. for direct talks telling the South Koreans that they have “ample intentions of holding talks with the United States.”
The statement was made by a North Korean envoy Kim Yong Chol during a rare visit to the South. In a notable concession, the North Korean delegation also said that “South-North relations and U.S.-North Korean relations should be improved together.”
The North had previously indicated a willingness to talk with the South, extending an invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit the North. The invitation was extended by North Korean Leader Kim Jon Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, who led the North Korean delegation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games this month.
Moon demurred on the invitation however, saying the meeting should be accomplished by setting the “right conditions.” He added that talks between North Korea and the United States were also necessary, and encouraged the North to be more open to dialogue with the U.S. The latest signal by the North seems to be aimed at addressing this concern.
Hostilities between North Korea and the international community had been rising for months over their continued pursuit of nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Relations took a sharp turn for the better earlier this year however, when North Korean Leader Kim called for the “melting” of frozen North-South relations this year.
He also agreed to send a delegation of athletes to the PyeongChang Winter Games. Both Korean delegations marched together under a unified flag during the Opening Ceremonies.
The moves have done quite a bit to ratchet down the growing tensions over the weapons programs. Former Secretary of State under George W. Bush Condoleezza Rice said of the North Korean leader that he is “turning, much more so than I thought, to be actually pretty clever.”
The Trump administration has remained skeptical however. Vice President Mike Pence, who led the U.S. delegation to the Games said the U.S. would be open to continued negotiations, but that economic sanctions would only be scaled back if the Kim regime takes concrete steps towards denuclearization.
“The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” Pence said earlier this month. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”
In the meantime, the Trump administration has announced yet another round of sanctions against the regime in recent days, and today released a statement reiterating their openness to talks but remaining firm in its demand for disarmament.
“The United States, our Olympic Host the Republic of Korea, and the international community broadly agree that denuclearization must be the result of any dialogue with North Korea. The maximum pressure campaign must continue until North Korea denuclearizes….We will see if Pyongyang’s message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization. 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 statement read.
Administration officials have characterized the latest sanctions, along with the previous ones, as the impetus for the North’s willingness to talk.
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in an address at the University of Chicago last week, touted them U.S. sanctions as an effective tool used to decrease the revenue the North can devote to their weapons program.
“It is this fact, more than anything else, that prompted the Kim regime to reach out to South Korea and do public relations damage control at the Olympics,” she said. “Their sources of revenue are drying up. Sending cheerleaders to Pyeongchang was a sign of desperation, not national pride.”