The US is ready to engage in talks about North Korea’s nuclear program even as it maintains pressure on Kim Jong Un’s regime, Vice President Mike Pence said, signaling a shift in American policy.
Pence and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in agreed to pursue dialogue with North Korea during conversations at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, the Washington Post reported. Pence dubbed the new strategy “maximum pressure and engagement 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,” the Post quoted Pence as saying during an interview on his way home from South Korea. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”
“I think it is different from the last 20 years,” Pence said, according to the Post. When asked what exact steps North Korea would have to take to get sanctions relief, he said: “I don’t know.”
The comments represent a departure from the Trump administration’s previous stance that North Korea must first agree to discuss giving up its nuclear weapons before talks began. Pence endorsed a change of tactics after Moon assured him the North Koreans wouldn’t get economic or diplomatic benefits just for talking—they must take concrete steps toward denuclearization.
“This demonstrates the type of flexibility the US needs to move forward,” said William McKinney, a visiting scholar at the US-Korea Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who has participated in past talks with North Korea. “It could be described as employing ‘hard power and soft power in parallel.’ Doing so gives the US many more options to use in its negotiations with North Korea.”
Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, led a charm offensive during the Games, inviting Moon for a summit in Pyongyang and asking him to play a “leading role” in reuniting the two Koreas after nearly seven decades. A spokesperson for Moon’s office said that pre-conditions needed to be met before he accepted the invitation.
Pence ignored Kim Yo Jong and other members of the North Korean delegation during his time in South Korea. In public comments, he repeatedly emphasized the strength of the US alliance with South Korea and the need for North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said on Monday that the dialogue would be led by the two Koreas with cooperation and support from international partners. South Korea “will faithfully implement the international sanctions on North Korea, while also adhering to the principle of resolution through peaceful means,” it said.
Kim Jong Un’s summit invitation had sparked concern he had succeeded in driving a wedge between South Korea and the US, which have differed on the best way to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons. The Post reported that Pence and Moon hammered out the new strategy during conversations at the presidential Blue House and during a speed-skating event.