U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence wave from Air Force Two as they arrive at Osan air base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. (Photographer: Ryu Seung-il/Pool via Bloomberg)

U.S. Says Ready for North Korea Talks in Policy Shift

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. is ready to engage in talks about North Korea’s nuclear program even as it maintains pressure on Kim Jong Un’s regime, Vice President Mike Pence said, signaling a shift in American policy.

Pence and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in agreed to pursue dialogue with North Korea during conversations at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, the Washington Post reported. Pence dubbed the new strategy “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time.”

“The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” the Post quoted Pence as saying during an interview on his way home from South Korea. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”

When asked what exact steps North Korea would have to take to get sanctions relief, he said: “I don’t know.”

The comments represent a departure from the Trump administration’s previous stance that North Korea must first agree to discuss giving up its nuclear weapons before talks began. Pence endorsed a change of tactics after Moon assured him the North Koreans wouldn’t get economic or diplomatic benefits just for talking -- they must take concrete steps toward denuclearization.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said North Korea must show its sincerity.

“They know what has to be on the table for conversations,” he told a news conference during a visit to Cairo. “We’re going to need to have some discussions that precede any form of negotiations, to determine whether the parties are in fact ready to engage in something that’s meaningful.”

Charm Offensive

Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, led a charm offensive during the Games, inviting Moon for a summit in Pyongyang and asking him to play a “leading role” in reuniting the two Koreas after nearly seven decades. A spokesperson for Moon’s office said that pre-conditions needed to be met before he accepted the invitation.

Kim Jong Un’s summit invitation had sparked concern he had succeeded in driving a wedge between South Korea and the U.S., which have differed on the best way to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Monday that the dialogue would be led by the two Koreas with cooperation and support from international partners. South Korea “will faithfully implement the international sanctions on North Korea, while also adhering to the principle of resolution through peaceful means,” it said.

“This demonstrates the type of flexibility the U.S. needs to move forward,” said William McKinney, a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who has participated in past talks with North Korea. “It could be described as employing ‘hard power and soft power in parallel.’ Doing so gives the U.S. many more options to use in its negotiations with North Korea.”

Pence ignored Kim Yo Jong and other members of the North Korean delegation during his time in South Korea. In public comments, he repeatedly emphasized the strength of the U.S. alliance with South Korea and the need for North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.

The Post reported that Pence and Moon hammered out the new strategy during conversations at the presidential Blue House and during a speed-skating event. 

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