Trump Says Pressure Works as North Korea Seeks Seoul Talks

Updated on
  • South Korea proposes Jan. 9 date as it seizes on Kim’s request
  • Kim offered to send delegation to Olympics in South Korea
North Korea Signals Olympic Truce

President Donald Trump claimed his efforts to pressure North Korea are having a “big impact” as South Korea proposed holding talks with Pyongyang on Jan. 9, a move that may ease tensions over the country’s nuclear program ahead of the winter Olympic games.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered to open talks with Seoul in a New Year’s Day address, one of the most promising peace overtures since Trump took office. Trump tweeted on Tuesday that Kim’s proposal reflects his administration’s campaign to increase sanctions against North Korea and threats to use military action to dismantle the regime’s nuclear weapons program.

“Sanctions and ‘other’ pressures are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea. Soldiers are dangerously fleeing to South Korea. Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not - we will see!” Trump wrote.

Trump later responded to Kim’s comment that he has a “nuclear button” on his desk that will prevent the U.S. from starting a war.

“Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” Trump wrote.

Trump administration officials sidestepped questions about how they squared South Korea’s willingness to meet with the U.S. position that Kim must first demonstrate a readiness to pause, if not abandon, his efforts to build a nuclear arsenal that can hit the U.S. mainland.

‘Very Skeptical’

“We are very skeptical of Kim Jong Un’s sincerity in sitting down and having talks,” State Department spokesman Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said “our policy hasn’t changed at all.”

South Korea moved quickly to respond to Kim, suggesting that high-ranking officials from both sides meet at the border village of Panmunjom to discuss participation in the Winter Olympics next month. It would be the first formal meeting between the two Koreas since 2015.

“We expect to sit down with North Korea face-to-face and frankly discuss mutual interests aimed at better inter-Korean relations,” Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday, reaffirming the government’s willingness to talk to Kim’s regime without conditions. “We look forward to Pyongyang’s positive reaction to this.”

South Korea coordinated with the U.S. before making its proposal to North Korea, Cho said. In addition to clearing the way for North Korea’s participation in the Olympics, Seoul wanted to use the opportunity to rebuild overall relations, he said.

North Korea’s Call for Talks Tests U.S.-South Korea Alliance

Many obstacles remain to a deal that could prompt North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, which Kim on Monday said were essential to deter a U.S. invasion. Past efforts at dialogue have failed, and the U.S. has said it will never accept North Korea as a nuclear power.

Still, the possibility of talks reduces the odds of a military conflict, which had seemed more probable as North Korea tested weapons and Trump issued threats. While Kim claims to have the capability to strike anywhere in the U.S. with a nuclear weapon, analysts say it’s unclear if his regime yet has a warhead that could survive re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere and target specific locations.

Any talks are likely to have only a limited outcome as South Korea relies on the U.S. for defense and wouldn’t want to undermine Trump’s push to enforce sanctions against North Korea, said Lee Ho-ryung, chief of North Korean studies at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. Easy measures include humanitarian assistance and reuniting separated families, he said.

‘Wishful Thinking’

“The detente could last throughout this year, but it’s too hasty to expect too much from this meeting,” Lee said. “If the South believes that having eye contact with North Korean officials at the Olympics would lead to a shift of the situation, that would be only wishful thinking.”

China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, welcomed the push for talks and called on both Koreas to take the opportunity to improve ties. China has long called for negotiations to reduce tensions.

“It is a good thing,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday.

Earlier, South Korean President Moon Jae-in ordered his government to act swiftly on Kim’s offer. Since taking power last year, Moon has sought to ease tensions with North Korea through dialogue, offers of aid and an invitation to participate in the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, a city not far from the border dividing the Korean Peninsula.

“Improving inter-Korean relations and resolving the North Korean nuclear issue are not separate from each other,” Moon said. Any talks must be closely coordinated with South Korea’s allies and the international community, he added.

— With assistance by Peter Martin, Jennifer Epstein, and Nick Wadhams

(Updates with Trump tweet on nuclear button.)
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