March 4, 2018 / 3:22 AM / 4 months ago

South Korea sending envoys to North Korea as Trump suggests U.S. willing to talk

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea will dispatch a delegation led by senior security officials for a two-day visit to North Korea starting Monday, the presidential Blue House announced Sunday, as U.S. President Donald Trump hinted that he is ready to talk to Pyongyang.

FILE PHOTO - South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivers a speech during a ceremony celebrating the 99th anniversary of the March First Independence Movement against Japanese colonial rule, at Seodaemun Prison History Hall in Seoul, South Korea, March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

For its part, North Korea said it was not begging to talk with Washington and denounced upcoming U.S.-South Korean joint-military exercises, warning that it would take counter measures against the United States if they went ahead.

The drills will take place next month, a South Korean presidential security adviser said according to the Yonhap news agency. They had been delayed until after the Winter Olympics and Paralympic games in South Korea.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House said in a statement that National Security Office (NSO) head Chung Eui-yong and National Intelligence Service (NIS) chief Suh Hoon, a veteran of past negotiations with the North, will be among the 10-member South Korean delegation visiting Pyongyang.

The visit was part of an effort to lower tensions on the Korean peninsula as well as possibly arrange talks between North Korea and the United States, it said.

After the visit to North Korea the envoys will travel to the United States to brief officials, and Seoul said it would also coordinate closely with officials in Japan and China.

During a joke-filled monologue at a dinner with journalists in Washington on Saturday, Trump suggested that the United States will be meeting with North Korea but has told Pyongyang it must first “denuke.”

“We will be meeting and we’ll see if anything positive happens,” he added.

It was unclear if Trump was joking or if formal U.S.-North Korea talks were imminent.

Speaking on Sunday in Beijing ahead of the opening of China’s parliament, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui said China hoped the United States and North Korea could begin dialogue too.

“War and chaos on the peninsula in not in the interests of any side,” Zhang said.

South Korea's National Intelligence Service head nominee Suh Hoon speaks during a press conference at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea May 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jung Yeon-Je/Pool

Last month, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to meet with North Korean officials, including leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, while in South Korea for the Winter Olympics but the North Koreans canceled at the last minute, U.S. officials said in February.

North Korea reiterated on Saturday that it was willing to talk to the United States but said it would never sit with any precondition.

A North Korean foreign ministry spokesman was quoted by KCNA as saying “we will neither beg for dialogue nor evade the military option claimed by the U.S.”

A commentary published by North Korea’s official KCNA news agency warned that North Korea would “counter the U.S.” if joint military drills go forward.

The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang last month gave a boost to recent engagement between the two Koreas after more than a year of sharply rising tensions over the North’s missile programme and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of United Nations sanctions.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in hopes to capitalize on that thaw in relations by arranging talks over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programme.

During a phone call on Thursday, Moon told Trump of his plan to send a special envoy to North Korea in response to an invitation from leader Kim Jong Un.

In sending an envoy to Pyongyang, Moon said he would be seeking to reciprocate Kim Jong Un’s decision to send a senior delegation, including his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to the Olympics, marking the first visit by a member of the North’s ruling bloodline since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The White House has said any talks with North Korea must lead to an end of its nuclear programme, and on Feb. 23, the United States said it was imposing its largest package of sanctions to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programmes.

At the time, Trump also warned of a “phase two” that could be “very, very unfortunate for the world” if the steps did not work.

Additional reporting by Yuna Park, and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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