WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and South Korea have agreed on terms for further diplomatic engagement with North Korea, first with Seoul and then possibly leading to direct talks with Washington without pre-conditions, Vice President Mike Pence said in a newspaper interview published on Sunday.
Speaking to the Washington Post aboard Air Force Two on his way home from the Winter Olympics in South Korea, Pence – who avoided any direct contact with North Korean officials attending the Games – said Washington would keep up its “maximum pressure campaign” against Pyongyang but would be open to possible talks at the same time.
Pence's comments suggested that the administration of President Donald Trump, which has mostly taken a hard line over any potential engagement with North Korea, might be looking more favorably at diplomatic options.
“The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” Pence was quoted as saying. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”
Pence was reported to have said he reached the new understanding with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has been pushing for diplomatic solution to the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, in two substantive conversations during his visit to South Korea.
A North Korean delegation, the highest-ranking to visit the South and led by the younger sister of the North's leader Kim Jong Un, concluded its visit on Sunday after charming and intriguing the South Korean public, but still faces deep scepticism over Pyongyang's sincerity towards improving relations.
Moon gave qualified consent to holding a future summit with Kim, the first between the two Koreas since 2007.
North Korea has made clear that it does not intend to negotiate away its nuclear and missile programs in return for relief from international sanctions.
During Pence’s visit, Moon assured the vice president he would tell the North Koreans clearly that they would not get economic or diplomatic concessions for just talking, only for taking concrete steps toward denuclearization, the newspaper said.
Based on that assurance, Pence was cited as saying he felt confident he could endorse post-Olympic engagement with Pyongyang.
Pence was quoted as describing the approach as “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time.”
Speaking to reporters on his flight home on Saturday, Pence said the United States, South Korea and Japan were in complete agreement on isolating North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. South Korea’s presidential Blue House also had no immediate comment.
Trump, who has at times exchanged taunts and threats with Kim, said in early January after the first intra-Korean talks in over two years that the United States was willing to speak to North Korea "under the right circumstances," although it was far from clear whether this would pay dividends.
In December, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's offered to start talks with North Korea without pre-conditions, but the State Department later said there would first have to be a "period of calm" in which Pyongyang suspends testing before any negotiations could begin.
(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)