By Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean President Moon Jae-in has picked two senior security officials as special envoys to North Korea, Yonhap news agency reported Sunday, as upcoming joint military drills by U.S. and South Korean troops drew condemnation from Pyongyang.
National Intelligence Service (NIS) chief Suh Hoon and National Security Office (NSO) head Chung Eui-yong will lead the visit as part of an effort to lower tensions on the Korean peninsula as well as possibly arrange talks between Pyongyang and Washington, according to a senior presidential aide cited by Yonhap.
That mission could be complicated by the planned drills, as a commentary published by North Korea's official KCNA news agency warned that North Korea would "counter the U.S." if the United States holds joint military exercises with South Korea.
South Korea and the United States will start in early April a joint military exercise postponed until after the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, a South Korean presidential security adviser said according to Yonhap.
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."
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 program and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of United Nations sanctions.
Moon hopes to capitalize on that thaw in relations by arranging talks over North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program.
During a phone call on Thursday, Moon told his U.S. President Donald 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 program, 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 programs.
Trump also warned of a“phase two” that could be “very, very unfortunate for the world” if the steps did not work.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)