Korean peninsula

US ‘welcomes’ softer tone on Korean Peninsula but watches Pyongyang warily

US State Department in talks with Seoul to ensure North Korea’s Olympics participation does not violate UN sanctions aimed at nuclear programme

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 January, 2018, 8:40am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 January, 2018, 9:08am

The US State Department said it welcomed talks between Pyongyang and Seoul on North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, despite a US lawmaker’s call for America to boycott the Games.

In a statement, the State Department said it was in “close consultations” with Seoul to ensure that North Korea’s participation in the Olympics in the mountainous South Korean county does not violate sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council aimed at halting North Korea’s “unlawful” nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

Tuesday’s statement also said that during a phone call last Friday, US President Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in agreed to continue their campaign of “maximum pressure” on North Korea to achieve the “complete and verifiable” denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

The Koreas – which have existed as two separate entities since the end of the second world war – held their first official dialogue in two years at the border village of Panmunjom.

At the same time it said it would send a delegation to the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, North Korea said it accepted Seoul’s proposal to hold military talks to reduce regional tensions, according to a joint statement released after the meeting.

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North Korea’s Olympic delegation is to include high-ranking officials, athletes, cheering and performing arts squads, tae kwon do demonstration teams and journalists, the reclusive state said earlier on Tuesday.

News that North Korea could be taking part in the Olympics has prompted calls in some quarters for the US to boycott the Games.

Early last week, US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted that “allowing [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un’s North Korea to participate in Winter Olympics would give legitimacy to the most illegitimate regime on the planet”.

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“I’m confident South Korea will reject this absurd overture and fully believe that if North Korea goes to the Winter Olympics, we do not”, Graham said.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed at a press briefing that the US would be sending a high-level delegation to the Games next month and that details would emerge “in the coming days”.

North Korea’s participation in the Games does not “affect” the US, Sanders said, calling it an opportunity for Pyongyang to see “the value of ending its international isolation by denuclearising”.

Ri Son-gwon, who headed North Korea’s delegation, is said to have made a “strong” complaint when South Korean chief delegate Cho Myoung-gyon raised the issue of denuclearisation, South Korean Yonhap News agency reported.

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“This is not a matter between North and South Korea, and to bring up this issue would cause negative consequences and risks turning all of today’s good achievement into nothing,” Ri was quoted by Reuters. Ri is the chairman of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland.

“All our weapons including atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs and ballistic missiles are only aimed at the United States, not our brethren, nor China and Russia,” Pyongyang’s chief negotiator, Ri said. Neither the White House nor the State Department have commented on Ri’s comments.

When asked whether the US would be next to engage North Korea directly in talks, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last Friday on CNN: “We’ll see”.

Tillerson said the US’s demands remain unchanged: complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. “That is a policy that is commonly held by everyone in the region as well.”

Ed Royce, chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview with FOX News last Friday that the US should “keep the pressure up on Kim Jong-un”. It was crucial that South Korea not “give away anything as resources or money to North Korea in any of these talks”, he said.

“Because that money always finds its way back into their nuclear weapons programme.”

China on Tuesday welcomed the momentary change in tone in ties between the two Koreas. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a press briefing in Beijing that China “welcomes and supports the positive steps recently taken by the DPRK and ROK to ameliorate their relations”.

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DPRK (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and ROK (the Republic of Korea) are North Korea and South Korea’s official names, respectively.

“We also hope that the international community can root for both sides and give them full understanding and support,” Lu said.