SEOUL/WASHINGTON • Comments by US Vice-President Mike Pence suggest the United States may be looking more favourably at diplomatic engagement with North Korea as South Korea considers a rare summit with its neighbour and long-time foe.
Mr Pence said in a newspaper interview that the US and South Korea had agreed on terms for further diplomatic engagement with North Korea, first with Seoul, and then possibly leading to direct talks with Washington.
The prospect of talks comes after months of tension between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington over North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes, with US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un trading insults and threats of destruction amid tightening sanctions from the United Nations.
Speaking to the Washington Post aboard Air Force Two on his way home from the Winter Olympics in South Korea, Mr Pence said Washington 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 towards denuclearisation," he was quoted on Sunday as saying. "So, the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we will talk."
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday that it was too early to judge whether latest developments represented the start of a diplomatic process.
"We have said for some time it is really up to the North Koreans to decide when they are ready to engage with us in a sincere way, a meaningful way," Mr Tillerson told reporters in Egypt. "They know what has to be on the table for conversations."
Mr Trump has, at times, questioned the purpose of further talks with the North after years of negotiations by previous US administrations failed to halt Pyongyang's weapons programmes.
Last year, North Korea conducted dozens of missile launches and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions as it pursues its goal of developing a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the US.
Relations between the two Koreas have improved in recent weeks, with Pyongyang sending its highest-ranking delegation ever to attend the Winter Olympic Games, being held in the South Korean resort of Pyeongchang.
The visit included an invitation from Mr Kim for South Korean President Moon Jae In to travel to Pyongyang for talks. Such a meeting would mark the first inter-Korea summit since 2007.
Mr Kim's proposal for a summit was "a brilliant diplomatic manoeuvre", said Dr Andrei Lankov, a historian at Kookmin University in Seoul who once studied in Pyongyang. Mr Moon would irritate Mr Trump if he accepts the invitation, while declining would make the US and South Korea appear "unreasonably bellicose", he said.
A South Korean government official said Seoul's stance was that separate talks with North Korea by South Korea and the US should both lead to the denuclearisation of the North, while sanctions and pressure continue to be applied.
North Korea defends its weapons programmes as essential to counter US aggression, saying regular war drills between the US and the South are preparations for invasion. The South hosts 28,500 US troops, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.
South Korea's Ministry of Unification said yesterday it would seek ways to continue engaging North Korea, including trying to arrange more reunions for families divided by the war and lowering military tensions.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach will visit North Korea after the Games as part of an agreement between the IOC and North and South Korea, a source within the Olympic movement told Reuters yesterday.