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U.S. officials say they’re willing to talk with North Korea, despite Trump’s reluctance

U.S. officials are ready to negotiate with North Korea, a spokesperson for South Korean President Moon Jae-in told reporters on Tuesday. The statement comes days after Vice President Pence suggested he would be willing to open discussions with the Kim regime, with certain stipulations.

“The United States too looks positively at South-North Korean dialogue and has expressed its willingness to start dialogue with the North,” spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom stated, according to The New York Times.

Shortly after leaving South Korea this past weekend, where he had been in attendance at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics opening ceremonies, Pence told the Washington Post that he would consider talks with Pyongyang, so long as the topic of denuclearization was on the table.

“The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” Pence said, in an interview. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”

The decision comes at a crucial time for North Korea, whose economy has taken a hit under aggressive sanctions imposed by the United Nations. Pence himself recently stated that the United States was ready to unveil crippling new economic sanctions meant to force North Korean officials into a nuclear drawdown. The vice president called the sanctions the “toughest and most aggressive…on North Korea ever.”

“We will continue to intensify our maximum pressure campaign until North Korea takes concrete steps toward complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” Pence said during a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on February 7.

Referring to the sudden diplomatic warming between North and South Korean officials prior to the Olympics, he added, “I laud the fact that inter-Korean dialogue is taking place for the success of the Pyeongchang Olympics. But we cannot simply look on as North Korean continues to develop nuclear weapons and missiles.”

The sudden shift toward diplomatic talks is an about-face for the Trump administration, which has wavered considerably over the past year on the topic of North Korea. In August, responding to reports that North Korea had begun making missile-ready nuclear weapons, President Trump stated that the nation would be “met with fire and fury” if it continued developing its nuclear program.

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump told reporters. “…[Kim Jong-un] has been very threatening, beyond a normal state. And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury, and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

Responding to Trump’s comments, North Korean officials threatened to strike military targets in Guam, a U.S. territory.

The president’s comments were later tempered by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who stated that Americans should “sleep well at night” and not worry about the escalating rhetoric between the two countries.

“What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong-un would understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” he said. “I think the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime that the U.S. has unquestionable ability to defend itself, will defend itself and its allies, and I think it was important that he deliver that message to avoid any miscalculation on their part.”

In October, Trump and Tillerson found themselves at odds after the president shot down his secretary of state’s suggestion that North Korea could be dealt with diplomatically. Tillerson had told reporters one day earlier that the United States was in “direct contact” with North Korean leaders and had several channels open with Pyongyang, whenever they were ready to talk.

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump tweeted, using a mocking nickname for the North Korean leader. “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

More recently, Vice President Pence himself has ratcheted up tensions between the two nations, telling reporters at a missile defense facility in Tokyo that he would be “telling the truth about North Korea at every stop” on his way to South Korea.

“We’ll be ensuring that whatever cooperation that’s existing between North and South Korea today on Olympic teams does not cloud the reality of a regime that must continue to be isolated by the world community,” he said.

North Korean leaders shot back, saying their nuclear program was meant as a deterrent to Trump to prevent him from launching the first strike, according to the Associated Press.

“If Trump does not get rid of his anachronistic and dogmatic way of thinking, it will only bring about the consequence of further endangering security and future of the United States,” officials stated, according to the Korean Central News Agency, the country’s state-run media outlet.

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