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WASHINGTON — The U.S. and South Korea have agreed on terms for further diplomatic engagement with North Korea, which could potentially lead to direct talks with Washington without pre-conditions, according to Vice President Mike Pence.
Speaking to the Washington Post aboard Air Force Two while returning from the Winter Olympics in South Korea, Pence said the Trump administration would keep up its “maximum pressure campaign” against Pyongyang but would be open to possible talks at the same time.
“The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” Pence was quoted as saying. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”
The prospect of talks comes after months of tension between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington over North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons, with President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un trading insults and threats amid tightening sanctions from the United Nations.
Pence had traveled to the Olympics to counter what Washington said was the North's crude attempts to hijack the Games with a propaganda campaign.
Pence was reported to have said he reached the new understanding with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has been pushing for diplomatic solution to the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, in two substantive conversations during his visit to South Korea.
A North Korean delegation, the highest-ranking to visit the South and led by Kim's younger sister, concluded its visit on Sunday after charming and intriguing the South Korean public, but still faces deep scepticism over Pyongyang's sincerity towards improving relations.
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Moon gave qualified consent to holding a future summit with Kim, the first between the two Koreas since 2007.
North Korea has made clear that it does not intend to negotiate away its nuclear and missile programs in return for relief from international sanctions.
During Pence’s visit, Moon assured the vice president he would tell the North Koreans clearly that they would not get economic or diplomatic concessions for just talking, only for taking concrete steps toward denuclearization, the newspaper said.
Based on that assurance, Pence was cited as saying he felt confident he could endorse post-Olympic engagement with Pyongyang.
Pence was quoted as describing the approach as “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time.”
Pence added that the United States, South Korea and Japan were in complete agreement on isolating North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.
Trump said in early January after the first intra-Korean talks in over two years that the United States was willing to speak to North Korea "under the right circumstances," although it was far from clear whether this would pay dividends.
On Sunday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said it was too early to tell whether a diplomatic detente between the two Koreas at the games would lead to results, but the move had not driven a wedge between Washington and Seoul.
The two Koreas are still technically at war after the 1950-53 conflict on the Korean peninsula ended in a cease-fire and not a peace treaty.
North Korea has said in public statements that it wants an official end to the Korean War. It also wants nothing short of full normalization of relations with the U.S. and to be treated with respect and as an equal in the global arena.