North says it is willing to talk with U.S.

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North says it is willing to talk with U.S.


From left in the front row, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, first lady Kim Jung-sook, U.S. President Donald Trump’s daughter and advisor Ivanka Trump, and far right in the second row, Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of North Korea’s Central Committee in the Workers’ Party, during the closing ceremony at the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium in Gangwon. [YONHAP]

An eight-member high-level delegation from North Korea told South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in Sunday afternoon before attending the Olympics closing ceremony that Pyongyang was interested in talking with the United States.

According to Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom, the comment was in response to Moon’s remark that North Korea-U.S. dialogue must be held as early as possible in order to improve South-North relations and “essentially resolve the Korean Peninsula issue.”

It is not known whether the left-leaning president mentioned North Korea’s nuclear development program, but the topic wasn’t included in Kim’s summary of the hour-long discussion held at an undisclosed location in Pyeongchang County, Gangwon from 5 to 6 p.m.

Kim continued that the North Korean officials, who entered South Korea on Sunday morning for a three-day trip, agreed with Moon that inter-Korean relations and North Korea-U.S. relations had to “develop together.”

The meeting was attended by Moon; his national security chief, Chung Eui-yong; and Suh Hoon, director of South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service. Attending from the North Korean side were Kim Yong-chol, a vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, who is also known to be director of the committee’s intelligence arm, the United Front Department; and Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the Committee of the Peaceful Reunification of the Country of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a cabinet-level agency overlooking South-North relations.

The prospect of the North Korean delegation meeting with the group from Washington, led by Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump’s daughter and advisor, loomed for days after Pyongyang told Seoul last Thursday it would send its second high-level delegation to the Olympics for the closing ceremony.

The Trump team downplayed any chance it would meet with North Korean officials during their four-day stay here while talking with the press, but instantly sparked speculation when it was revealed only recently that Allison Hooker, an official on the U.S. National Security Council in charge of Korean affairs, would accompany Trump for the South Korea tour, which is planned to wrap up Monday.

Hooker is known to have joined James Clapper, former director of national intelligence in the Barack Obama administration, when he visited North Korea in November 2014 to negotiate the release of two Americans held prisoner.

Pyongyang’s public interest to engage in talks with Washington came after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said earlier this month that the Trump White House was “listening” for cues from the North that it was ready to engage in direct talks with the United States, following other green lights from the administration that it would talk with the regime without any preconditions.

The new “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time approach,” as described in the words of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, is a deviation from the past, when the Trump administration would only engage directly with the regime if it made real concessions for denuclearization, building maximum pressure until that point was reached.

Seoul tried to broker a meeting between the delegations from North Korea and the United States shortly after the Olympics opening ceremony on Feb. 9, but it floundered just two hours before the scheduled time, when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, pulled out, blaming Pence for meeting with North Korean defectors upon his arrival in the South and highlighting the maximum pressure campaign against her country.

The chilly atmosphere between North Korea and the United States during the closing ceremony on Sunday night looked no different from the tableau in the opening ceremony, as Trump did not shake hands with Kim Yong-chol or look in his direction.

North Korea’s second high-level delegation for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics touched down in South Korea, as conservative lawmakers and civic groups here vehemently protested the arrival of Kim Yong-chol, who allegedly oversaw fatal attacks on the South that killed dozens.

Kim led an eight-member delegation to the Gyeongui Highway Transit Office in Paju, Gyeonggi, refusing to take any questions from the media as he and his cohorts made their way to Seoul by car.

The top official was accused by Seoul’s former right-leaning administrations of having caused the deaths of 46 sailors by orchestrating the 2010 torpedoing of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, when he helmed the North Korean Army’s Reconnaissance General Bureau.

He was also suspected to have led the shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island later that same year, which killed four people, and the planting of land mines near a South Korean military post inside the Demilitarized Zone in 2015, which severely wounded two soldiers.

Nearly 90 lawmakers and 500 members of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party protested on the southern side of Tongil Bridge in an attempt to block the delegation from heading south, forcing the group to take a detour.

Among the North’s delegation was Choe Kang-il, a deputy director general in charge of North American affairs within the Foreign Ministry, whose inclusion raised speculation about the possibility of an interaction between the delegation from Washington.

After arriving at the heavily fortified Grand Walkerhill Seoul hotel in Gwangjin District, eastern Seoul, near Sunday noon, the North Korean delegates were escorted by car to Deokso Station in Namyangju, Gyeonggi, at around 3:30 p.m., where they took a KTX bullet train to Pyeongchang County, Gangwon, to join the closing ceremony at 8 p.m. at the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said 299 North Koreans who visited the South for the PyeongChang Olympics, including four National Olympic Committee members, 45 athletes, 229 cheerleaders and 21 reporters, including support staff for each group, will return home on Monday by taking a road linking the two countries along the west coast, passing through the Gyeongui Highway Transit Office in Paju.

The PyeongChang Winter Olympics wrapped up its 17-day run on Sunday night, with South Korea winning a total of 17 medals, including five in gold, eight in silver and four in bronze. The country finished seventh in the gold medal count, tying with Switzerland, France and Austria. North Korea did not win any medals.

A working-level meeting between the two Koreas discussing the North’s participation in the upcoming Paralympics is slated to be held Tuesday at 10 a.m. on the northern side of the Panmunjom truce village, which straddles the border.

Lee Joo-tae, director general for inter-Korean exchange and cooperation at the Unification Ministry, will lead the three-member delegation of interlocutors from Seoul, the ministry said.

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