North Korea hails 'openhearted talk' with South Korean envoys

Kim Jong Un in North Korea in February 2017. NYT via Korean Central News Agency
Kim Jong- Un in North Korea in February 2017. NYT via Korean Central News Agency

North Korea hails 'openhearted talk' with South Korean envoys

by Choe Sang Hun

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said Tuesday that its leader, Kim Jong Un, has held an “openhearted talk” with visiting envoys from South Korea, reaching a “satisfactory agreement” about holding an inter-Korean summit meeting with the South’s president, Moon Jae-in.

Kim spent more than four hours with the South Korean envoys, including Moon’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong. They met in talks and over a dinner held on Monday in the headquarters of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang, the North’s capital, Moon’s office said Tuesday.

South Korean officials said the talks with Kim were “not disappointing.”

The 10 members of the delegation led by Chung are the first South Korean officials to meet Kim since he took power six years ago. The South Korean envoys have hoped to persuade Kim to start a dialogue with the United States on ending the North’s nuclear weapons program.

Neither North Korea nor Moon’s office commented on how Kim responded to the South Korean appeal.

Kim and the South Korean delegates held “an openhearted talk” on “actively improving the North-South relations and ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said Tuesday. Kim “repeatedly clarified” his wish to improve those ties, and exchanged “in-depth views” on easing military tensions and promoting dialogue and exchanges with the South, it said.

“Hearing the intention of President Moon Jae-in for a summit from the special envoy of the south side, he exchanged views and made a satisfactory agreement,” it said. “He gave the important instruction to the relevant field to rapidly take practical steps for it.”

Kim first proposed a meeting with Moon in Pyongyang, delivering his invitation through his sister, Kim Yo Jong, who met Moon in Seoul last month. Moon has said that the two Koreas must first “create the environment” to make a meeting possible.

Washington remains deeply skeptical of any attempt by the South to improve ties with the North without any progress in international efforts to end the North’s nuclear weapons program. Although he advocates dialogue with North Korea, Moon acknowledges that the two initiatives must move “in parallel” and has been urging the United States and North Korea to start negotiations on the nuclear program.

A senior aide of Moon’s told reporters in Seoul that the results of the talks would be announced after the envoys returned home later Tuesday from the two-day trip, he said.

Moon and Kim have both said they want to use an opening created by the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics in South Korea last month to improve Korea ties.

But Washington and North Korea remain far apart over the terms under which they would start a dialogue, a gap that South Korea seeks to narrow. After returning home from Pyongyang, the South Korean envoys will fly to Washington for discussions with the Trump administration.

The Trump administration says it is determined not to repeat what it calls the mistakes of its predecessors, who tried both dialogue and sanctions but failed to stop the North’s nuclear program. The administration now says it will enter negotiations with North Korea only after it commits to discussing denuclearization.

U.S. officials fear that North Korea is more interested in weakening sanctions that have begun biting the impoverished country than engaging in serious negotiations. Even if talks begin, they say, Washington will not stop its campaign of “maximum” pressure and sanctions until the North dismantles its nuclear weapons program.

North Korea rejects any preconditions for talks, saying Washington must treat it like an “equal” nuclear power. It also insists that any talks with Washington would have to deal not only with its nuclear program but also with “hostile” U.S. policies, like the United States’ annual joint military exercises with the South, which the North says forced it to seek a nuclear deterrent in the first place.

Moon spent most of the last year helplessly watching the Korean Peninsula edge toward a possible war, as the North test-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles and conducted its most powerful nuclear test, and President Donald Trump threatened to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea.

Moon saw an opening when Kim agreed to send North Korean envoys, as well as athletes and cheerleaders, to the Olympics. He has since assumed the role of a matchmaker in persuading Washington and Pyongyang to soften their stances enough to make dialogue possible.

The last time South Korea sent an envoy to Pyongyang was in 2007, toward the tail end of the South’s decadelong “Sunshine Policy” of encouraging economic and other exchanges with the North. But a conservative leader took power in Seoul the following year, cutting off inter-Korean trade in retaliation against the North’s nuclear weapons development and other provocations.

Kim Jong Un has accelerated his country’s nuclear and missile tests since inheriting power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011. After launching an intercontinental ballistic missile in November, Kim claimed to have a “nuclear button” on his desk with which he could fire missiles capable of reaching the mainland United States. U.S. officials say Kim is getting dangerously close to achieving the ability to strike the United States with nuclear-tipped missiles.

Kim, at 34, is one of the world’s youngest and most reclusive dictators. He has met with envoys from China and Cuba, as well as personal guests, including U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman. But until now, he has never met any envoy from South Korea. Neither has he visited any foreign country as North Korea’s leader, although he studied in Switzerland as a teenager.

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