SEOUL — The United States must “lower its bar for dialogue” and North Korea must signal that denuclearization is on the agenda, South Korea’s president said Monday as he tried to keep the momentum going in an Olympics-inspired detente.
After talking with Ivanka Trump, the U.S. president’s daughter and adviser, and separately with a senior North Korean official over the weekend, President Moon Jae-in hosted Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong in his office Monday.
“The United States needs to lower its bar for dialogue, and the North, too, must show its willingness to denuclearize,” Moon told Liu during their meeting, a spokesman for the South Korean president said. “It is important for enabling the U.S. and North Korea to sit down face to face.”
Time is short for the South Korean president, given that his military is set to start huge exercises with the United States on April 1, an event that elicits an angry response from North Korea every year. In addition, the North has a history of putting all inter-Korean-related issues on ice during the two months of drills.
With his frenzy of diplomacy, Moon has been in contact with representatives of four of the countries involved in now-
defunct six-party talks on North Korea’s denuclearization. The other two parties are Japan and Russia.
North Korea, while apparently open to the idea of talks, has not agreed to put its nuclear weapons up for negotiation.
Kim Yong Chol, the leader of a North Korean delegation visiting Seoul and an official blacklisted by both the United States and South Korea for his role in the nuclear weapons program, seemed to obfuscate Monday.
Over lunch with South Korea’s national security adviser, Kim said denuclearization may be the end goal of talks but there are “many ways” of starting the process. He did not explain what those ways might be, a presidential Blue House official told local reporters.
Their lunch was in a Chinese restaurant at the relatively isolated Walkerhill Hotel, where the sister of North Korea’s leader stayed during her visit earlier this month and where the current delegation is staying.
Ironically, the hotel is named after Walton H. Walker, an American general who commanded the U.S. Eighth Army and was a pivotal figure in the early days of the Korean War.
While Kim reiterated his statement that North Korea was open to dialogue with the United States, its archenemy, he did not exactly welcome the idea of talking about denuclearization.
In his meeting with Kim on Sunday evening, Moon urged the North Koreans to commit to the principle of denuclearization, and Kim responded, the official said, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
“The North Koreans seriously listened to President Moon’s statement, and there was a response, but it’s not appropriate for me to deliver,” he said.
It was a sign of how difficult it will be to make progress in the standoff, which has only become more heated in the past year, as Kim Jong Un’s regime fired missiles and tested what it said was a hydrogen bomb, while President Trump repeatedly threatened military action.
The White House issued a tempered reaction to the South Korean government’s report that North Korea was willing to talk, signaling that any talks must be about “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.”
“The maximum pressure campaign must continue until North Korea denuclearizes,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.
North Korea’s official news agency issued an even more discouraging statement, although it was reacting to earlier news.
A spokesman for the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee lashed out at Vice President Pence’s description of Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s sister, as a “central pillar” of an oppressive regime.
“We will never have face-to-face talks with them even after 100 years or 200 years. This is neither an empty talk nor any threat,” the news agency quoted the spokesman as saying. “The U.S. will have to pay dearly for stupid and wild vituperation.”