North Korea 'very willing' to hold talks with the US

Moon Jae-in meets with blacklisted North Korea general, sparking angry protests from conservatives

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics - Closing ceremony - Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - Pyeongchang, South Korea - February 25, 2018 - Ivanka Trump (L) , U.S. President Donald Trump's daughter and senior White House adviser, and Kim Yong Chol (C) of the North Korea delegation attend the closing ceremony. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
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North Korea is "very willing" to hold talks with the United States, its delegation to the Winter Olympics closing ceremony said on Sunday, according to Seoul's presidential Blue House.

In a meeting with the South's President Moon Jae-in, the North's delegation "agreed that inter-Korea talks and North-US relations should improve together", the Blue House said in a statement.

Pyongyang has frequently said it is willing to talk without preconditions, but Washington says it must first take concrete steps towards denuclearisation.

Also on Sunday, Mr Moon met a senior North Korean delegation led by a blacklisted general before the Winter Olympics closing ceremony, which will also be attended by US president Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka.

The visit by Kim Yong Chol, heading an eight-member delegation that crossed the Demilitarised Zone Sunday morning, is the final piece of the Games-led diplomacy that has dominated headlines from Pyeongchang after months of tensions.

But the visit by Mr Kim, accused of masterminding past attacks on the South, has sparked angry protests from conservatives.

Mr Moon met Mr Kim for about an hour beginning at 5pm local time in Pyeongchang, the presidential office said without elaborating.

The nuclear-armed North has gone on a charm offensive over the Games, sending athletes, cheerleaders and performers and with leader Kim Jong-un's sister Kim Yo Jong attending the opening ceremony.

But Pyongyang on Sunday slammed Mr Trump's latest sanctions on its regime as "bringing clouds of war" over the peninsula.

"As we have stated on numerous occasions, we will consider any type of blockade an act of war against us, and if US has indeed the guts to confront us in 'rough' manner, we will not necessarily take the trouble to stop it," said a foreign ministry spokesman quoted by the official KCNA news agency.

Analysts say the North's overtures to the South are intended to loosen sanctions imposed over its banned nuclear and missile programmes, and an attempt to weaken the alliance between Seoul and Washington.

But Kim Yo Jong had no interaction with US vice president Mike Pence at the opening ceremony just over two weeks ago, even though they were just a few seats apart. According to the US, a planned meeting between the delegations from Washington and Pyongyang the following day was cancelled at short notice by the North Koreans.

Mr Moon also did not immediately accept an invitation passed on by Kim Yo Jong from her brother to a summit in Pyongyang, saying the right conditions must be created.

Washington, which describes its approach to Pyongyang as "maximum pressure and engagement", announced its new sanctions on Friday.

The US Treasury blacklisted 28 ships, 27 companies and one person, imposing an asset freeze and barring US citizens from dealing with them, in what Mr Trump described as the "heaviest sanctions ever" levied on Pyongyang.

Mr Trump also warned that, if the latest sanctions do not work, the US may "go to phase two" that "may be a very rough thing".

The UN Security Council has already banned North Korean exports of coal — a key foreign exchange earner — iron ore, seafood and textiles, and restricted its oil imports.


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Washington is now seeking to have the United Nations ban vessels from ports worldwide and blacklist shipping businesses for helping the North circumvent sanctions.

Kim Yong Chol's nomination as leader of the visiting delegation is controversial in the South, where he is widely blamed for attacks including the torpedoing of Seoul's Cheonan warship in 2010 with the loss of 46 lives. Pyongyang denies responsibility.

Conservative lawmakers staged an overnight protest near the border with the North, joined by hundreds of other activists.

They waved banners including "Arrest Kim Yong Chol!" and "Kim Yong Chol should kneel in front of the victims' families and apologise!"

Mr Kim is blacklisted under Seoul's unilateral sanctions against the North, meaning he is subject to an assets freeze.

Officials from both Seoul and Washington say there will be no meeting between Kim Yong Chol and Ivanka Trump — who is travelling with Korea specialists from the US administration and White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.

Kim Yo Jong's trip at the start of the Games — the first visit to the South by a member of the North's ruling dynasty since the Korean War ended in 1953 — made global headlines.

But Mr Pence told an audience of thousands at the Conservative Political Action Conference: "The sister of Kim Jong-un is a central pillar of the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet, an evil family clique that brutalises, subjugates, starves and imprisons its 25 million people."

Pyongyang denounced his comments Sunday, with KCNA carrying a statement from the North's Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee saying Pence would discover "what quagmire his crazy remarks threw the US and himself into".

Mr Trump, it said, should know that the North would "have no dealings with those viciously slandering the dignity of our supreme leadership and government".

"We will never have face-to-face talks with them even after 100 years or 200 years."