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South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, with Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong in Seoul on Feb. 26. (Photo courtesy of the presidential Blue House)
Politics

South Korea urges US to ease conditions for talks with North

Moon seeks support from China in post-Olympics diplomacy

HIROSHI MINEGISHI and TSUYOSHI NAGASAWA, Nikkei staff writers | China

SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in doubled down on his calls for a dialogue with North Korea just one day after the end of the Winter Olympics, hoping to eventually broker a meeting between Pyongyang and the U.S.

Talking with Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong on Monday at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, Moon stressed the importance of maintaining a dialogue with the North even after the games. Chinese President Xi Jinping had sent Liu as a special delegate to the closing ceremony the day before.

Moon said both North Korea and the U.S. have recently showed an openness to communicating. He urged further efforts by both sides and called on Washington in particular to lower the threshold for potential talks.

Moon asked for Chinese cooperation, with Liu responding that Beijing and Seoul will work together to facilitate a conversation between the U.S. and North Korea.

South Korea is expected to hold joint military drills with American forces in April. Moon hopes to broker talks between Washington and Pyongyang before then.

South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong met Monday with North Korean delegation members including Vice Chairman Kim Yong Chol from the Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party. The two sides agreed to continue working toward peace on the Korean Peninsula, better bilateral ties, and cooperation with the international community even after the Olympics. They also agreed on the need for cooperation with the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.

Kim commended the Moon administration's efforts toward U.S.-North Korea talks and stressed that the doors to a dialogue are open. He apparently did not comment on any specific preconditions.

Moon met separately Sunday with the North Korean delegation, discussing concrete steps toward denuclearization, according to a source from the South Korean president's office. Moon may have proposed that Pyongyang first freeze its nuclear program before phasing it out altogether.

The North Koreans listened to Moon seriously, but it would be inappropriate to comment on their response, the source said.

The South Korean government did not announce these meetings in advance or release photos afterward. Kim is believed to be a key figure behind the sinking of a South Korean warship back in 2010. Seoul may have worried about placing a meeting by Moon with such a controversial figure in public view, the Dong-A Ilbo reported.

Washington is also warming up to the possibility of a dialogue. In a statement just hours after Moon's meeting with Kim, the White House said: "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 U.S. sent President Donald Trump's daughter and adviser, Ivanka, to the Olympics' closing ceremony. Allison Hooker, the Korea director on the National Security Council, traveled with her to South Korea, according to The Washington Post.

Vice President Mike Pence had been scheduled to talk with North Korean officials during his trip to the South for the opening ceremony Feb. 9, but Pyongyang is said to have canceled.

North Korea did send Choe Kang Il, a senior diplomat in charge of U.S. affairs, as part of its delegation to the closing ceremony. He is believed to have been part of recent contacts between the two countries, and South Korean media report that Hooker and Choe may have met in secret.

The Trump administration has raised the possibility of a "preliminary" chat with North Korea to set expectations for a more serious dialogue. "If there's an opportunity for talks that can communicate the fixed policy of the United States of America to them, the president's made it clear he always believes in talking," Pence recently said.

Still, the White House stressed Sunday that "denuclearization must be the result of any dialogue with North Korea." It remains committed to its "maximum pressure" approach and even announced additional sanctions Friday. A deep rift remains between Washington and Pyongyang, which wants recognition as a nuclear power.

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