The United States and South Korea have agreed on how to handle diplomatic engagement with North Korea—including the possibility of eventual talks with the United States, according to Vice President Mike Pence.
When North Korea announced its wish to join the Winter Olympics, critics suggested the move was an attempt to wedge apart the resolve of the international community, unified over sanctions designed to rein in the rogue dictatorship’s nuclear program.
In an interview with The Washington Post published on Feb. 11, however, Pence showed the United States and South Korea are singing from the same hymn sheet—open to talks, but with no prospect of dropping sanctions without steps towards denuclearization.
Last year, North Korea conducted dozens of missile launches and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of previous U.N. Security Council resolutions as it pursues its goal of developing a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the United States.
In December, the U.N. implemented new sanctions designed to clip the nuclear ambitions of the communist state. Further international talks have deepened agreements on the prospect of further sanctions.
Pence said Washington would keep up its “maximum pressure campaign” against Pyongyang.
“The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” Pence was quoted in The Washington Post. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”
North Korea and South Korea are still technically at war but diplomatic channels began to inch open again in recent months.
Pence said the United States 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 without pre-conditions.
“I think it is different from the last 20 years,” Pence said.
However, he said at the moment he could not pinpoint what exactly Pyongyang would have to do before sanctions might be lifted. “That’s why you have to have talks.”
A South Korean government official said Seoul’s stance was that separate talks with North Korea by South Korea and the United States should both lead the denuclearization of the North while sanctions and pressure continue to be applied.
South Korea said it will seek ways to continue engaging North Korea, including trying to arrange more reunions for families divided by the war and lowering military tensions.
“Under a strong position for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, Korea will faithfully implement the international sanctions on North Korea, while also adhering to the principle of resolution through peaceful means,” the statement said.
Pence was speaking on the way back from the Winter Olympic games.
The visit of a North Korean delegation to the games, which included leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, intrigued many in South Korea, but also met skepticism about the North’s willingness to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons. North Korea has said it will never give up its nuclear deterrent and critics in the South see its participation in the Games as a reward for bad behavior.
Kim Yo Jong and her delegation spent three days dining with top government officials, watching the opening ceremony and cheering for the united women’s ice hockey team the two Koreas have fielded at this Olympics.
International Olympic Committee 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 on Feb. 12.
Although the United States has always refused to take military options off the table, it has responded to the dialogue between the North and South with lukewarm caution all along.
“Without our attitude that would have never happened,” President Trump said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in January. “Who knows where it leads. Hopefully, it will lead to success for the world—not just for our country but for the world, and we’ll be seeing over the next number of weeks and months what happens.”
The Department of State noted in January that sanctions appeared to be working.
“They are feeling the strain,” said Brian Hook, Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. Department of State in a Jan. 11 press briefing. “And we believe that this pressure campaign remains the best avenue to force change in Kim Jong Un’s behavior and to get him to the negotiating table for meaningful discussions.”
Reuters contributed to this report.