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International relations

US and North Korea face thorny path after Olympic lull

American joint military exercises with South come as next test for relations

Senior White House adviser Ivanka Trump and Kim Yong Chol of the North Korean delegation attend the closing ceremony for the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea on Feb. 25.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON/PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Sunday's meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Yong Chol, deputy chief of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party, opens a new chapter in the three-way gamesmanship between Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington.

Yet a thorny path awaits any talks that may occur, due to the wide rift that exists between the U.S., which is looking for concrete steps toward denuclearization, and North Korea, which insists that such a demand is a non-starter.

The meeting between Moon and Kim, the North's top representative to the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics, was held in an undisclosed location in Pyeongchang and lasted for about an hour, according to a statement from the South Korean presidential office. It took place before the closing ceremony the same day.

The delegation said that the country was open to talks with the U.S. They also said that developments in relations between the two Koreas and those between North Korea and the United States should go hand in hand, the Blue House announced.

Moon praised the decision by the North Korean delegation to attend both the opening and closing ceremonies of the Winter Games, his office said. The spokesman quoted Moon as saying the sight of North and South Korean athletes marching as one team moved people around the world.

Relations between the North and the South should develop and expand in many areas, Moon said, adding that Kim Jong Un shares that view.

The biggest obstacle to improving North-South ties remains North Korea's nuclear arsenal. The U.S. reacted cautiously to the North-South meeting, reiterating Sunday that it will not hold talks with North Korea unless it promises to freeze or abandon its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development. "We will see if Pyongyang's message today that it is willing to hold talks represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization," the White House said in a statement.

"The United States, our Olympic host the Republic of Korea, and the international community broadly agree that denuclearization must be the result of any dialogue with North Korea. The maximum pressure campaign must continue until North Korea denuclearizes," the White House said.

The statement also said that there is a "brighter path" available for North Korea if it chooses denuclearization.

The North Korean officials did not mention denuclearization at Sunday's meeting. In the past it has dismissed such calls saying that nuclear weapons are non-negotiable and the US must learn to co-exist with a nuclear North Korea.

Ivanka Trump, daughter of U.S. President Donald Trump, also attended the closing of the games. During her trip, the younger Trump stressed the importance of the alliance between Washington and Seoul. Those calling for a hard line against Pyongyang worry that North Korea is trying to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington with calls for closer North-South cooperation.

During the games, military tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been on a low ebb. The U.S. agreed to hold off on joint military exercises with South Korea for the duration of the games. North Korea last test-fired a ballistic missile in November.

For now, both Washington and Pyongyang are focusing on the period after the Pyeongchang Paralympics wrap up on March 18. The ensuing joint military drills will likely serve as a watershed moment.

The Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea's ruling party, said in a piece published online Sunday that the U.S. is desperate to go through with the exercises, even though such drills must cease. Many observers expect the hermit state to roundly criticize the exercises, then use them as a pretext for restarting provocations.

Shrinking the size or delaying the joint military exercises would risk sending the wrong message that the U.S. and its allies are weakening their pressure. Speaking to Seoul through military channels, Washington ruled out any further delays on the drills past the Paralympics, as well as any change in scope, South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo reported Wednesday. The White House also last week announced the harshest sanctions ever imposed on North Korea.

South Korea is apparently looking to serve as a broker of sorts between the U.S. and North Korea, even searching for a way to scale back the joint exercises. But Seoul faces a large gap to bridge. Although the Trump administration is also open to dialogue, it would only happen if Pyongyang renounces nuclear weapons. Yet North Korea is showing no signs of relinquishing its position as a nuclear state.

Kenichi Yamada, Nikkei staff writer in Seoul, contributed to this report.

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