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International Relations

Japan, US mull post-Olympics strategy on North Korea

North-South dialogue may stymie Trump's 'maximum pressure' campaign

U.S. President Donald Trump has promised he will not take military action on North Korea while it is engaged in a dialogue with South Korea.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- As South Korea attempts to score a breakthrough with the North via Olympic diplomacy, Japan and the U.S. are already looking beyond the athletic events to contemplate the next step in containing the rogue state.

In their first meeting of high-ranking officials in two years in Tuesday, the North agreed to send athletes to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics next month in South Korea, raising hopes for further dialogue. And the U.S. appears willing to support Seoul's efforts for now. 

"Hopefully, it will lead to success for the world," U.S. President Donald Trump said Wednesday of the talks.

"We'll be seeing over the next number of weeks and months what happens," he said. 

He had also promised, in an earlier conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, to hold off on any military action while the North and the South continue to talk, according to the South Korean leader's office.

Trump's comments on their own seem to suggest he is easing up on Pyongyang. But he maintains that the North must take concrete action toward denuclearization before any talks with the U.S. Trump agreed to postpone the joint exercises with South Korea only on the understanding that North Korea will refrain from nuclear and missile tests. Restrictions on the rogue state's oil supply and key exports will remain in place.

If the U.S. continues exerting military pressure on the North during the inter-Korean talks, the resulting tension could hurt relations with a Seoul eager to stage a successful Olympics. This in turn could weaken the three-way partnership with Japan and benefit North Korea.

"There is no change to the Japan-U.S. response or our trilateral response with South Korea," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Thursday.

"The dialogue isn't going to go that well," a Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo also said. "I don't think tensions between North and South Korea are necessarily easing."

Indeed, North Korea has shown no signs that it is willing to part with its nuclear weapons. At the talks with South Korea on Tuesday, the country bristled at a proposal for talks toward its denuclearization. "As long as North Korea is trying to make missiles that can reach the U.S., the American stance will not change," a Japanese official said.

Trump and Moon on Wednesday reaffirmed the importance of continuing the "maximum pressure" campaign against North Korea, the White House said. Japan and the U.S. will also call on the international community to fully abide by United Nations sanctions on Pyongyang at a foreign ministers' meeting in Canada on Tuesday.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono spoke with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland over the phone earlier this week. He stressed the need to ramp up pressure on North Korea and said he hoped to lead the conversation at next week's meeting.

Still, there is a growing rift among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea, despite repeated declarations of unity. Pyongyang is trying to widen those divisions.

The focus is now on what the countries will do once the Pyeongchang Paralympic Games end on March 18. Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, on Tuesday discussed American plans to resume joint exercises with South Korea after the Paralympics. Tensions could flare up again if North Korea makes military provocations as it works to perfect its intercontinental missiles.

There is concern in Tokyo that North Korea will string the South along to buy time and supplement its income. In exchange for a continued dialogue, Pyongyang could demand that Seoul scale down its drills with the U.S. and provide humanitarian assistance, as well as reopen the Mount Kumgang resort and the Kaesong industrial complex -- two joint economic projects of the two Koreas.

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