North Korea could be prepared to begin talks with the United States, signalling a possible softening of the diplomatic standoff and war of words between the two countries.
South Korea's president Moon Jae-In released a statement on Sunday ahead of the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang to say he had met with the North Korean delegation, led by general Kim Yong Chol, and that the regime was "very willing" to begin talks with the US.
"President Moon pointed out that U.S.-North Korea dialogue must be held at an early date even for an improvement in the South-North Korea relationship and the fundamental resolution of Korean Peninsula issues," said Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesperson for the president.
"The North Korean delegation too agreed that North Korea-U.S. relations must develop along with the South-North Korea relationship while noting [the North] has enough intention to hold North Korea-U.S. dialogue," they said.
Moon's statement said North Korea agreed "the inter-Korean relationship and North Korea-US relationship should develop together."
The Olympics has seen a significant thawing of relations between North and South Korea, after a string of missile tests and nuclear activity from the North. Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un, invited Moon to Pyongyang for talks after meeting him at the opening ceremony.
The US delegation at the closing ceremony was led by Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump, but US officials had earlier ruled out a meeting between her and the North Koreans.
The potential offer comes at an important point for US-Korean relations: Pyongyang accused the United States of provoking new conflict around the Korean Peninsula with an announcement on Friday of a new raft of sanctions to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.
The US measures target some 50 ships and transport companies in North Korea, China, and Taiwan.
Just hours before the South Korean announcement of possible talks, North Korea's state news agency said: "On the eve of closing of the Olympics, United States is running amok to bring another dark cloud of confrontation and war over the Korean peninsula by announcing enormous sanctions against the DPRK."
On Sunday, a US State Department spokesperson said improved relations between the two nations hinged on the North Koreans' nuclear program. “We are in close contact with the Republic of Korea about our unified response to North Korea. As President Moon stated, ‘the improvement of relations between North and South Korea cannot advance separately from resolving North Korea’s nuclear program,'” the spokesperson said, Reuters reported.
Also on Sunday, the White House echoed the State Department's position, stressing that any talks between nations would be focused on the end goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
"The maximum pressure campaign must continue until North Korea denuclearizes. As President Trump has said, there is a brighter path available for North Korea if it chooses denuclearization," the statement read. "We will see if Pyongyang’s message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization. In the meantime, the United States and the world must continue to make clear that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are a dead end."
Patrick Smith is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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