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International Relations

North Korea emerges from Olympics with diplomatic gains

US softens line on talks with no sign of disarmament from Pyongyang

North Korean Gen. Kim Yong Chol, center, reportedly told the South Korean government his country is open to talks with the U.S.   © Getty Images

SEOUL -- North Korea appeared to secure some hints toward dialogue from the U.S. while clinging to its goal of recognition as a nuclear power during the South's Winter Olympics, in a charm offensive that ended as a diplomatic envoy returned home Tuesday.

The North, seeking to dismantle the web of international sanctions around it, is expected for now to try to maintain its political gains and push for the cancellation of American-South Korean joint military drills, which are planned for April following March's Paralympic Games.

The delegation headed by Gen. Kim Yong Chol, the vice chairman for South Korean Affairs of the Workers' Party of Korea, went home after a three-day visit whose schedule was kept tightly under wraps by the Seoul government. Kim, a hard-liner, is seen as having a hand in such serious provocations as the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in 2010.

After viewing the Olympics' closing ceremony in Pyeongchang Sunday, Kim returned to a Seoul hotel early Monday, then stayed out of view of the press for about 34 hours until leaving for the North with his entourage Tuesday morning.

In his limited time in the public eye, Kim gave the appearance of endorsing improved North-South relations. On Tuesday morning, he spoke over breakfast with the South's Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon, as well as Suh Hoon, head of the National Intelligence Service. The officials acknowledged the role of North-South cooperation in making the Olympics a success, and confirmed their position of striving to improve relations and achieve peace on the peninsula.

Before the general's visit, North Korea began its "smile diplomacy" push by sending Kim Yo Jong -- the sister of leader Kim Jong Un, and a high-ranking officer of the Workers' Party -- to the Feb. 9 Olympic opening ceremony in Pyeongchang. Sending such important envoys appeared designed to impress on the South's government the Northern autocrat's seriousness toward repairing ties.

North Korean officials conveyed through conversations with Southern counterparts and the government of President Moon Jae-in that the hermit state is ready for talks with the U.S. Moon is also eager to have the foes meet, as he has said Pyongyang and Washington must establish a dialogue as a precondition for North-South summit talks.

But the North has made no mention of dismantling its nuclear program. In a New Year's address, Kim Jong Un emphasized the need both to complete the nuclear force and to build a peaceful environment through inter-Korean cooperation. The smile diplomacy was apparently meant to convince the South that the peninsula could achieve peace even with a nuclear-armed North.

Pyongyang aims to get the U.S. to the table while holding onto its nuclear capabilities, which it sees as a proud achievement and vital shield for the regime. It envisions a scenario where in return for offering to scale down arms, it receives economic aid and a guarantee of security. There have been predictions that the North may play an important card: offering to freeze the program for intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S.

The North's charm offensive appears to have helped shift the U.S. into a posture of readiness for talks. Though Pyongyang canceled meetings at the last minute between Kim Yo Jong and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, the American government has mentioned the possibility of preliminary talks in advance of serious dialogue. The mood in the U.S. and Japan appears to be gradually accepting the idea.

But on the nuclear issue, Washington and Pyongyang remain far apart. On Friday, the U.S. announced a fresh wave of sanctions intended to choke off funding to the North's nuclear and missile development.

South Korea has successfully "created an environment allowing for regular dialogue with the North," according to a Moon aide. The South had a chance to hear the North's intentions through Kim Yong Chol, and to express both its own intentions and Washington's stance. But "the circumstances with Kim Yong Chol were not right for seeking an agreement, nor for making proposals and conveying them to the U.S.," said the official.

The planned U.S.-South Korean maneuvers will influence the progress toward dialogue. On Monday, the online edition of the Workers' Party mouthpiece, the Rodong Sinmun, warned that the hermit state would respond firmly to any resumption of drills by the U.S. It added that should the rapprochement between the North and South be disrupted, the responsibility would fall entirely on the U.S. and its followers, apparently aiming to tie the South's hands.

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