3-7-18 7:20 PM EST | Email Article
By Felicia Schwartz and Michael R. Gordon in Washington and Andrew Jeong in Seoul 

White House National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster will meet his South Korean counterpart as Washington weighs Pyongyang's offer to discuss giving up its nuclear program, administration officials said.

The high-level meeting comes as administration officials look for signs that indicate whether Pyongyang is serious about taking steps toward denuclearization.

Those could come Thursday when South Korea's national-security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, and intelligence chief, Suh Hoon, brief Gen. McMaster and a team of State Department and other Trump administration officials on their meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and others in Pyongyang.

U.S. officials will be looking to see if the South Korean officials reaffirm that North Korea has promised to refrain from nuclear and missile tests and to engage in negotiations on giving up its nuclear arsenal if its security is guaranteed.

If the South Koreans provide such confirmation, the Americans' next step likely will be to ask the North Koreans directly to reiterate that position. The U.S. has a number of channels to communicate with the North Koreans, including through the country's ambassador to the United Nations.

If North Korea reaffirms that stance, that probably would represent a sufficient basis for the U.S. to begin talking with North Korean representatives, officials said.

Precisely what form those initial talks might take is unclear, but officials said they have worked hard to develop a U.S. negotiating proposal, which they declined to detail. The North Koreans have talked before about giving up their nuclear arsenal once the threat to the regime is removed and some U.S. officials have been wary that Pyongyang might insist on the removal of American troops and severing the U.S.-South Korean military alliance.

Chinese officials have welcomed North Korea's offer to talk to the U.S. state media reported. China's support could add impetus to some form of negotiations, as the U.S. needs Beijing to carry out its campaign of maximum economic and diplomatic pressure against Pyongyang.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday said his country would stick with tough economic sanctions against North Korea until "real progress" is made toward ending its nuclear-weapons programs, in an attempt to blunt skepticism over Seoul's efforts to kick-start dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.

On Tuesday, South Korean officials who met with Mr. Kim said the North Korean leader had expressed a willingness to negotiate with the U.S. and signaled an openness to abandoning nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees. Seoul also announced plans for a summit meeting with the North.

Gen. McMaster and officials at the State Department have also been consulting with Japan's ambassador to Washington, Kenichiro Sasae, U.S. officials said. Japanese officials also have expressed skepticism about the North Korean offer.

The Trump administration faces pressure from lawmakers who are eager to see tensions with North Korea subside, though they, too, have reservations about the North Korean overture.

"Direct negotiations between the United States and North Korea are the only feasible way to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula," said Sen. Ed Markey (D., Mass.) "However, there are many unanswered questions at this point. The devil is in the details and North Korea will use this time to perfect its weapons."

North Korea hasn't issued any statement confirming the South's account of the inter-Korean talks, though it did report on the delegation's arrival and a dinner with Mr. Kim on Monday evening.

Instead, North Korea's main daily newspaper devoted part of its front page Wednesday to government efforts to increase cement production for a tourist resort that it is building.

The North's silence added to skepticism in Washington and among conservatives in Seoul, who say Mr. Moon, who favors engagement with the North, may have moved too quickly to embrace Mr. Kim.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said North Korea's offer for talks is part of an effort "to divide us from our allies in South Korea. They are trying to get sanctions eased...trying to weaken our resolve to stand up to them."

Mr. Moon, in a meeting with conservative opposition party leaders Wednesday, said Seoul hadn't budged on the North's two most consistent demands: for sanctions relief and a halt to annual joint military exercises with the U.S. He added sanctions could only be eased when talks with the U.S. produce results.

On the military exercises, which would be happening as the summit takes place in late April, Mr. Chung said that "the North has promised not to raise issues with this."

Mr. Moon said there also had been no secret meetings between Seoul and Pyongyang to engineer the inter-Korean summit, and Mr. Chung added that the South hadn't promised any compensation to North Korea.

South Korean conservatives were outraged after a special counsel found that the first inter-Korean summit in 2000 was made possible through a transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars to the North.

Even with Seoul's assurances, skepticism about the North's intentions remained.

"This isn't the first time they said they would aim for denuclearization, " Hong Jun-pyo, leader of the main conservative opposition party, told Mr. Moon on Wednesday, according to the presidential office. "But all of that was a lie."

The venue for the proposed summit, a building on the South Korean side of the line at the truce village of Panmunjom, was offered by the South as one possible option, along with Pyongyang and Seoul. The North chose Panmunjom, Mr. Moon said.

The late April summit would be the third ever for the two Koreas, and the first in a neutral zone. The previous two inter-Korean summits, in 2000 and 2007, both were held in Pyongyang.

--Jonathan Cheng in Seoul contributed to this article.

Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com, Michael R. Gordon at michael.gordon@wsj.com and Andrew Jeong at andrew.jeong@wsj.com


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 07, 2018 19:20 ET (00:20 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2018 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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