South Korea’s top national security officer and its spy chief are part of a 10-member delegation that has arrived in North Korea for a visit aimed at paving the way for talks between Pyongyang and Washington.
Members of the South Korean delegation are meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — the first to meet with Kim since he took power six years ago.
The envoys flew a direct route from Seoul to Pyongyang by government plane. They’ll stay for two days. The trip is notable in that it’s rare — the last South Korean delegation to go to North Korea was more than 10 years ago, in 2007. That helped create conditions for an inter-Korean summit later that year.
Following the visit, two of the envoys — the head of the National Security Office in South Korea, and the spy chief — will then go to the U.S. to brief Americans. South Korean media say there will likely be a briefing for H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security advisor.
While the envoys will be discussing conditions for U.S.-North Korea dialogue, the Trump administration has said it doesn’t want to have formal talks unless North Korea is willing to discuss giving up its nuclear weapons.
“Now we are talking and [North Korea], by the way, called up a couple of days ago. They said that ‘we would like to talk.’ And I said, ‘So would we, but you have to denuke, you have to denuke,’ ” President Trump told attendees at the annual Gridiron Club dinner over the weekend.
Meanwhile, North Korea has said it wants to go to the table as equals, which means it refuses to put up its nuclear weapons as a precondition to talks.
Where does that leave things? It’s possible that the U.S. could soften its stance and say that North Korea agreeing to a moratorium, or freeze, in developing its program would be enough to start a dialogue.
But if there isn’t progress toward dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea, dialogue between the South Korean leader and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un remains possible. Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un, went to Seoul last month with an invitation from her brother to Moon to visit for a summit in Pyongyang.
Moon practically agreed to go, but said the conditions for that meeting to occur have to be paved first. One of Moon’s conditions is that North Korea make a more concerted effort to have dialogue with the U.S.
It all points to progress in avoiding confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea, but time is tight.
Seoul and Washington are expected to re-start their postponed annual military exercises in early April. North Korea despises these drills. It sees them as a rehearsal for invasion.
That means diplomats have about a month-long window to get the two sides either to the table or on a path to the table before the exercises — and the typical backlash from North Korea about the exercises — start again in earnest.
Se Eun Gong contributed to this post.