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State Dept., NSC say U.S. open to engagement

Feb 14,2018
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, the White House National Security Council (NSC) and the Department of State have been signaling a North Korea approach that combines maximum pressure alongside engagement, a slight shift in tone from before.

On Tuesday, Pence held a closed-door meeting and lunch at the White House with U.S. President Donald Trump, likely reporting back on his trip to Japan and South Korea over the past week.

He sent out over Twitter on Tuesday: “Our policy regarding North Korea is unchanged from my trip. [President Trump] has said he ‘always believes in talking’ but there will be NO reward for talks…”

A subsequent tweet stated, “Despite potential talks, and irrespective of if they happen w/USA or S. Korea, new strong sanctions are coming very soon and the maximum pressure campaign will only intensify until North Korea abandons its nuclear program. All our allies agree!”

These remarks reinforce the idea that Washington is looking to continue its maximum pressure campaign but that the door to dialogue with North Korea is simultaneously open. It comes as Pyongyang has proposed a rare inter-Korean summit with President Moon Jae-in through Kim Yo-jong, younger sister and special envoy of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Pence helmed the U.S. delegation to the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics Friday and had a summit and several encounters with Moon during his three-day visit to Korea, which kicked off last Thursday.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that based on assurances by Moon over two conversations while in South Korea, Pence felt confident Washington could endorse post-Olympics engagement with the North, expressing openness to direct talks without preconditions between Washington and Pyongyang. Moon reportedly assured Pence he would tell the North Koreans clearly that they would not get economic or diplomatic concessions just for talking, but only for taking concrete steps toward denuclearization.

Pence was quoted by the newspaper as saying that “the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk,” in what he called an approach of “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time.”

When asked if Pence’s remarks indicated the start of a diplomatic process with North Korea, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters in Cairo Monday, “As we’ve said for some time, it’s really up to the North Koreans to decide when they’re ready to engage with us in a sincere way, a meaningful way. They know what has to be on the table for conversations.”

He added, “We’re going to need to have some discussions that precede any form of negotiation to determine whether the parties are, in fact, ready to engage in something this meaningful, in order for us to then put together the construct of a negotiation. So we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Michael Cavey, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told Voice of America Monday that Seoul and Washington “will work together through the maximum pressure campaign to ensure that north-south progress is accompanied by advances toward denuclearization.”

Cavey added, “We support President Moon’s call for dialogue between the United States and North Korea, which must include the denuclearization of the peninsula.”

The White NSC has shown a shift in tone, as well.

A White House NSC spokesperson expressed similar remarks in a statement to the JoongAng Ilbo Monday, saying, “The United States and Republic of Korea will work together to ensure that north-south progress is accompanied by advances toward denuclearization.”

This was a shift from the day before, when an NSC spokesperson said, “The improvement of relations between North and South Korea cannot advance separately from resolving North Korea’s nuclear program. North Korea’s track record with negotiations is well known. We remain clear-eyed.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]