SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea on Tuesday responded to an overture from the North and proposed holding high-level talks between the countries on their border next week.
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, had suggested on Monday that the countries open dialogue on easing military tensions and on the possibility of the North’s participating in the Winter Olympics in the South, even as he noted that he now had a “nuclear button” on his desk.
President Trump responded somewhat cautiously to Mr. Kim’s overture early Tuesday, but later in the day the “nuclear button” comment drew a more robust response.
In a Twitter message posted Tuesday night, Mr. Trump, referring to Mr. Kim, said: “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!”
The Trump administration earlier had sent a series of mixed messages that strongly suggested it was still trying to figure out the meaning of Mr. Kim’s overture and the South’s response.
On Tuesday morning, President Trump responded on Twitter to the idea of inter-Korean talks, saying, “Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not — we will see!”
But the White House insisted that it had not changed its view of the efficacy of negotiations or its demands on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
“Our policy on North Korea hasn’t changed at all,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary. “The United States is committed and will still continue to put maximum pressure on North Korea to change and make sure that it denuclearizes the peninsula. Our goals are the same and we share that with South Korea, but our policy and our process has not changed.”
Speaking at the United Nations on Tuesday, the United States Ambassador, Nikki R. Haley, appeared to dismiss the potential for bilateral negotiations between North and South Korea.
“We won’t take any of the talks seriously if they don’t do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea,” she said. “We consider this to be a very reckless regime, we don’t think we need a Band-Aid; we don’t think we need to smile and take a picture. We think we need to have them stop nuclear weapons and they need to stop it now.”
Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said the Trump administration was still assessing whether the United States supported direct talks between South Korea and North Korea that excluded the United States.
“Right now, if the two countries decide that they want to have talks, that would certainly be their choice,” she said.
Ms. Nauert added that if Mr. Kim’s goal in proposing direct talks with the South was to divide the United States and South Korea, such a strategy would not succeed. “That will not happen,” she said.
Cho Myoung-gyon, the South’s point man on the North, proposed that the Korean governments hold their meeting next Tuesday in Panmunjom, a village straddling the border north of Seoul, the South Korean capital.
“We hope the two sides sit down for frank talks,” Mr. Cho, the unification minister, said at a news conference.
If the North responds positively, it will set in motion the first official dialogue between the Koreas in two years. South Korean officials hope the talks will lead to a thaw after years of high tensions between the countries and threats of war over the North’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
But analysts cautioned that a sudden move to improve ties between the Koreas could strain relations between Seoul and Washington.
Mr. Cho said the South was closely consulting with Washington on its dealings with the North.
Panmunjom has long been a contact point for the Koreas, with both sides exchanging messages through a telephone hotline there. But the North has not used the hotline since President Moon Jae-in’s conservative predecessor, the impeached President Park Geun-hye, shut down a joint industrial complex in the North Korean town of Kaesong in early 2016.
On Tuesday, Mr. Cho urged the North to restore the hotline so that both sides could discuss the agenda for the high-level talks. The governments held their last high-level dialogue in December 2015.
North Korea’s offer to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics, which are to begin in February in the South Korean town of Pyeongchang, represented a breakthrough for Mr. Moon, a dogged champion of dialogue and reconciliation with the North.
Mr. Moon has repeatedly urged North Korea to join the Pyeongchang Olympics, hoping it would ease the military tensions over the North’s nuclear and missile programs. Mr. Moon said the North’s participation would compel the Koreas to open talks, which he hoped would lead to broader negotiations, involving Washington and others, for the North’s denuclearization.
After ignoring Mr. Moon for months, calling his South Korean government an American stooge, Mr. Kim used his New Year’s speech on Monday to embrace the South Korean leader’s overture.
“I appreciate and welcome the North’s positive response to our proposal that the Pyeongchang Olympics should be used as a turning point in improving South-North relations and promoting peace,” Mr. Moon said early Tuesday, instructing his cabinet to move swiftly to open dialogue with North Korea.
With barely 40 days before the Olympics, the Koreas must sort out logistics and other details for North Korean athletes if they are allowed to participate, officials said.
South Korea has proposed that the North Korean athletes travel through the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone, the world’s most heavily fortified border, a route that would be rich in symbolism. It also wants to discuss the possibility of the two Korean delegations marching together in the Games’ opening ceremony.
If the North participated in the Games and the Koreas march together, it would be a milestone in inter-Korean relations.
In 2000, the year the countries held their first summit meeting, their delegations marched together at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. They again marched together at the 2004 Athens Olympics, using the single name “Korea” and carrying a “Korea is one” flag. But they competed separately in 2000 and 2004.
North Korea also sent squads to cheer for its athletes in international events in South Korea in 2002, 2003 and 2005. But such scenes came to an end after the conservatives took power in the South in 2008 and instituted tougher measures against the North’s nuclear weapons development.
In June, Mr. Moon, whose election in May ended the years of conservative rule, said he hoped to see the national teams of the two Koreas march together again in Pyeongchang.
The coming talks with North Korea over its Olympic participation could be a testing ground for Mr. Kim’s intentions.
While proposing to send an Olympic delegation, Mr. Kim on Monday said South Korea should end its regular joint military exercises with the United States and stop letting the Americans bring bombers and other nuclear-capable military assets into the Korean Peninsula. Mr. Moon has suggested that South Korea and the United States could postpone their joint military drills until after the Olympics.
Mr. Kim also demanded that South Korea stop joining the American-led campaign to squeeze North Korea with sanctions. Instead, he said the South should work with the North to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula, while boasting that his nuclear weapons would prevent the Americans from starting a new war in Korea.
Analysts said Mr. Kim was using the North’s Olympic participation to try to drive a wedge in the alliance between South Korea and the United States and between Mr. Moon and President Trump. Mr. Trump has taken a much tougher stance against the North, focusing on pressure and sanctions and once dismissing Mr. Moon’s efforts for dialogue with the North as “appeasement.”
In an analysis of Mr. Kim’s speech, the South’s Unification Ministry said Mr. Kim was seeking an “exit” from harsh sanctions by cultivating ties with South Korea.
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