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North Korea's Kim invites South Korean leader for summit in Pyongyang

The recent detente has come despite an acceleration in the North's weapons program last year and pressure from Seoul's allies in Washington

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been invited to Pyongyang "at an early date," officials said on Saturday, potentially setting up the first meeting of Korean leaders in more than 10 years.

Any meeting with Kim Jong Un would represent a diplomatic coup for Moon, who swept to power last year on a promise of greater engagement with the reclusive North.

The recent detente between the two neighbors, anchored by South Korea's hosting of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, came despite escalating tensions over the North's weapons program last year and pressure from Seoul's allies in Washington.

The invitation came during talks and a lunch Moon hosted with Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of the North Korean leader, at the presidential Blue House in Seoul.

Kim Jong Un wanted to meet Moon "at an early date," a spokesman for the Blue House said. Moon responded by saying "let's create conditions to make it happen," spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom, suggesting he was likely to accept the invitation.

Moon added that the North Korean delegation's visit had made the event "a peace Olympics," the spokesman said, giving the two countries a chance to establish better relations and potentially even peace.

The neighbors, divided by a heavily-mined Demilitarized Zone, are technically still at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.

Kim Yo Jong arrived in South Korea on Friday with Kim Yong Nam, the North's nominal head of state, for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in the alpine resort town of PyeongChang, just 50 miles from the North Korean border. They shook hands with Moon and cheered for athletes from the two countries who marched under a unified peninsula flag for the first time in a decade.

The North Korean leader's sister also wrote a hopeful note in the visitor's book at the Presidential Blue House.

"I hope that Pyeongyang and Seoul will get closer to the hearts of our people and that the future of the prosperity of unification is hastened," she wrote, according to a photo of the message released by South Korean officials.

Kim Yo Jong's message in the visitors' book at the Presidential Blue House
Kim Yo Jong's message (right) in the visitors' book at South Korea's Presidential Blue House.Presidential Blue House / NBC News

Some North Korean experts believe tough U.N. sanctions that are cutting off most of the isolated North's sources of revenue have added pressure on Pyongyang to engage further with Seoul.

"I think this overture towards South Korea is partly sanctions-related, and also related to the fact that it's clear a divergence has developed between Washington and Seoul's most keenly desired goals in the near term," said Andray Abrahamian, a research fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS in Hawaii, to Reuters.

"The North Koreans should understand that for a summit or any kind of serious talks to occur, Moon needs to be able to take something to Washington — something that addresses denuclearization," he said before the North's invitation to Moon was announced.

Moon's desire to engage North Korea stands in contrast to his U.S. ally.

Image: Mike Pence, Kim Yong Nam, Kim Yo Jong
Vice President Pence watches the opening ceremony seated in front of Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea's leader.Patrick Semansky / AP

Vice President Mike Pence also attended Friday's opening ceremony but had no contact with the North Korean delegation, even though Pence and his wife, Karen, were seated only one row in front of Kim Yo Jong at the opening ceremony.

In response to North Korea's invitation to Moon to visit Pyongyang, Alyssa Farah, Pence's press secretary, said that the vice president was "grateful that President Moon reaffirmed his strong commitment to the global maximum pressure campaign and for his support for continued sanctions."

In an exclusive interview with NBC’s “Nightly News,” Pence vowed that the U.S. would protect itself from North Korean nuclear threats by taking whatever “action is necessary to defend our homeland.”

Speaking with NBC’s Lester Holt on the sidelines of the 23rd Olympic Winter Games, Pence, who is leading the U.S. delegation there, made clear that the U.S. was not ruling out military options as tensions continued to roil the Korean Peninsula.

“We're going to continue to put all the pressure to bear economically and diplomatically, while preserving all of our military options to see that that happens,” Pence said in a segment that aired Friday morning on "Today."

He pointed to his belief that economic pressure "contributed" to the North's "outreach" to the South regarding the Olympics, and that a new round of sanctions might help the regime move toward a "future without nuclear weapons."

"But make no mistake about it. The United States of America has viable military options to deal with a nuclear threat from North Korea," he said.