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North Korea Opens The Door To Possible Talks With The U.S.


North Korea is opening the door to possible talks with the United States. The message came from a North Korean delegate at the Winter Olympics during an hour-long meeting with South Korea's president yesterday. North Korea and the U.S. haven't held diplomatic talks since 2012. So could that stalemate break? NPR's Elise Hu is in Seoul and joins us now. Hey, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there.

MARTIN: So there was all this hype that because North Korea was going to participate in the Olympics under one flag with the South, this was a significant step, albeit only symbolic some skeptics said. But now this news that the North wants to talk with the U.S. after this, that seems like a big deal.

HU: This certainly is the first time that North Korea has signaled a willingness to talk with the United States in years, but talks themselves are unlikely anytime soon because this is so vague right now. The South Korean presidential Blue House put out a statement yesterday that North Korea expressed a desire for talks that was again confirmed today. And North Korea agreed that as these North-South ties improve that there should be an improvement in North Korea-U.S. ties as well. And this is really helpful to the South Korean president, Moon, who really hasn't wanted to look like he's not getting anything from the North in return for all of the peace and goodwill gestures he's offered during the Olympics. So one of the demands by South Korea seems to be that the North be more willing to reopen dialogue with the U.S.

MARTIN: OK. But then what kind of response is this getting from the U.S.? I mean, we saw those images of Mike Pence sitting there feet away from Kim Jong Un's sister, looking like he didn't exactly want to talk to her.

HU: (Laughter) Right. He said later that he wasn't avoiding the North Korean delegation but ignoring the North Korean delegation. So the White House statement is that - still on maximum pressure, the Trump policy. And the statement said that there is a brighter path available for North Korea if it chooses denuclearization. And so we will see if Pyongyang's message today that it's willing to hold talks represents first steps to denuclearization.

So for its part, North Korea is not offering to discuss denuclearization right now as a precondition for dialogue. Its foreign ministry put out a statement saying its nuclear program is the country's, quote, "treasured sword of justice." So North Korea again emphasizes that the whole point of its nuclear and missile programs is to defend itself against the United States, which it sees as hostile. The U.S., of course, carpet-bombed North Korea during the Korean War. Those memories are often used as propaganda by the regime against the United States.

MARTIN: So where do you look next? I mean, we've had these conversations before, talks about talks, but what indications would actually suggest that it's going to move forward at this point?

HU: A few things. Clarity from Washington would be more helpful because even though maximum pressure is the top line, we have seen other members of the administration, like Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, being more flexible, saying that he's willing to have talks without preconditions. And then he's been forced to walk that back later. Trump himself has said he'd be supportive of talks and then hasn't specified under what conditions. So that's one thing to look for - so a little bit more clarity from the White House and the administration. The other thing we're watching is the military exercises that happen here on the peninsula every year. They are joint between the U.S. and South Korea. They've been pushed back because of next month's Paralympics. When will they restart, and will they be scaled down?

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Elise Hu for us this morning - thanks so much, Elise.

HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elise Hu
Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.