- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2018

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hosted an unprecedented dinner Monday for a delegation of South Korean officials, who are on a rare visit to Pyongyang as part of a growing push to arrange direct talks between North Korea and the United States.

The dinner, marking the first time the reclusive Mr. Kim has met personally with government and intelligence officials from the South, comes roughly a week after his regime expressed interest in talks with Washington and President Trump said he would welcome talks but only if North Korea promised to give up its nuclear weapons program as a condition for the talks.

In a speech Saturday night in Washington, Mr. Trump said offhandedly that the North Koreans had “called up a couple of days ago and said, ‘We would like to talk,’ and I said, ‘So would we, but you have to de-nuke, you have to de-nuke.’”

It was not immediately clear whether the president, speaking at the annual Gridiron dinner, was joking. The Trump administration has vacillated in recent month on whether it would be willing to engage in direct talks with North Korea, even as Pyongyang used the recent South Korean Winter Olympics as a stage for a major diplomatic push aimed at South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The North Koreans have said they would be open to talks only if Washington first recognizes the North’s status as a nuclear power and halts all U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises. The Trump administration halted such exercises during the Olympics, but U.S. officials insist they will resume soon.

A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said over the weekend that Pyongyang will not abandon its nuclear weapons program and criticized Washington for clinging to the idea of it as a precondition for direct talks.

“The U.S. is taking preposterous action by continuing to trumpet an insistence that it will not have dialogue unless a right condition is met,” the unnamed spokesman said, the North’s state-run KCNA news agency reported.

Seoul and Washington insist they are on the same page in dealing with the North, but Mr. Moon, a longtime advocate of engagement with Pyongyang, is clearly trying to build on the recent thaw. The 10-member South Korean delegation is being led by Mr. Moon’s national security director, Chung Eui-yong, and it’s the first known high-level visit by South Korean officials to the North in about a decade.

The South’s Yonhap News Agency reported that Mr. Kim hosted a welcome dinner three hours after the South Korean delegation landed with an explicit goal of arranging a future direct dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington. KCNA said the two sides had an “open-hearted talk” about Mr. Kim’s desire to “write a new history of national reunification.”

Mr. Chung before leaving Seoul told reporters he planned to “hold in-depth discussions on various ways to continue talks between not only the South and the North, but also the North and the United States and the international community.” He was carrying a personal letter from South Korea’s Mr. Moon for Mr. Kim, the contents of which have not been disclosed.

Some 30,000 U.S. military personnel are been positioned in South Korea, which has been in a state of frozen conflict with the North since the early-1950s Korean War with no peace treaty.

The recent flurry of diplomacy comes roughly a week after the Trump administration leveled harsh new economic sanctions against the Kim regime, designed to cut off Pyongyang’s vital supplies of illicit foreign oil and other goods.

Analysts and some U.S. officials have expressed wariness about the rapid rapprochement on the peninsula, arguing the North is pushing for the talks without first declaring it will give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Joseph DeTrani, a former CIA official who served as the State Department’s special envoy to the last major round of international talks with North Korea before they broke down in 2009, said in a recent interview that the current situation represents “an opening,” but “it’s not a breakthrough.”

Mr. DeTrani expressed optimism that a smaller deal could be struck to freeze the North’s nuclear and missile testing programs in return for a scaling-back of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which the South would welcome following a series of sharp exchanges between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim over the past 18 months.

The North’s intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests have sent tensions soaring across the region. Mr. Trump has vowed to use force if necessary to prevent Pyongyang’s development of a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the U.S. mainland.

He has also warned that if the current economic sanctions against North Korea don’t work, the U.S. will move to “phase two” in its pressure campaign against Pyongyang, which “could be very, very unfortunate for the world.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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