President Donald Trump (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Donald Trump is open to the US holding talks with North Korea “under the right circumstances,” the White House said Wednesday after South Korean President Moon Jae-In signalled a willingness to sit down with Kim Jong-Un.
Signs of a potential cooling following months of red-hot tensions on the Korean Peninsula came the day after North Korea reached a landmark agreement to send athletes to the Winter Olympics that will be hosted by the South, a move the international community broadly welcomed.
In a phone call with Moon, Trump expressed his openness to talks with Pyongyang “at the appropriate time, under the right circumstances,” the White House said.
The two leaders also “underscored the importance of continuing the maximum pressure campaign against North Korea,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders added in a statement confirming a South Korea account of the call.
The Olympics in Pyeongchang next month have long been overshadowed by extreme geopolitical tensions, with the North repeatedly test firing missiles capable of reaching the US mainland and detonating its most powerful nuclear device to date.
But Pyongyang — which boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul — agreed Tuesday to send athletes and officials to the Games as North and South held their first formal talks for two years at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.
“It is only the beginning,” Moon told a press conference. “Yesterday was the first step and I think we had a good start.”
“Bringing North Korea to talks for denuclearization is the next step we must take.”
He was willing to hold a summit “at any time,” he said, “but it cannot be a meeting for meeting’s sake. To hold a summit, the right conditions must be created and certain outcomes must be guaranteed.”
– Trump claims credit –
Moon has long supported engagement with the North to bring it to the negotiating table over banned weapons programs that have alarmed the US and the global community, and seen Pyongyang subjected to multiple sets of United Nations sanctions.
But the US has said the regime must stop nuclear tests if negotiations with Washington are to take place.
“We have no difference in opinion with the US,” Moon insisted, saying they shared an understanding about security, were working together and were both threatened by the North’s nuclear weapons and missiles.
But he stressed the aim of sanctions was to bring Pyongyang to talks, and “stronger sanctions and pressures could further heighten tensions and lead to accidental armed conflicts.”
Seoul had no plans to ease its unilateral sanctions at present, Moon said.
Trump, who has a much closer relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe than he does with Moon, has claimed credit for the North-South talks.
“If I weren’t involved, they wouldn’t be talking about the Olympics right now, they’d be doing no talking,” Trump said at the weekend.
Moon acknowledged his efforts Wednesday.
“I think President Trump’s role in the realization of inter-Korean talks was very big,” he said. “I would like to express my gratitude.”
– ‘Great step forward’ –
The US cautiously welcomed the North-South talks but warned the North’s attendance at the Games should not undermine international efforts to isolate the regime of Kim.
China — the North’s major diplomatic backer and trade partner — and Russia, with which it also has strong ties, both welcomed the inter-Korean talks.
And Japan’s top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo “highly valued” Pyongyang’s expressed willingness to participate in the Olympics.
“But there is no change in our policy of exerting the maximum level of pressure on North Korea until they change their policy, in close cooperation with the US, South Korea, and also involving China and Russia,” he added.
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said the agreement was a “great step forward in the Olympic spirit.”
Bach held talks with North Korea’s IOC member Chang Ung on Wednesday on the practicalities of sending athletes to next month’s Winter Olympics in the South.
They broached the question of whether the North Korean athletes would be housed in the Olympic village.
“It’s an issue up for debate, but their presence in the Olympic village is not certain,” a source close to the talks told AFP.
Officials from North and South Korea will meet at the IOC’s headquarters January 20 to hammer out details of the North’s participation at the Games, the IOC said.
South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-Yon said the North was expected to send “a massive delegation of between 400-500 people” to Pyeongchang.
“Just as the 1988 Olympics contributed to dismantling the Cold War, we earnestly hope that the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will improve the current state of the Korean Peninsula,” he said, and “contribute to world peace by reducing security risks.”
Though North Korea stayed away from that year’s Games in Seoul, Soviet bloc states and China took part despite the absence of diplomatic ties with the South.