The White House said Sunday it would take a wait-and-see approach to a new overture by North Korea for talks with the United States, a rare step toward diplomacy after months of North Korean missile and nuclear tests and threats of war from both sides.
“We will see,” was the response from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was on the Korean peninsula as a member of the U.S. delegation attending the Olympic games in South Korea. The delegation was led by Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump’s daughter.
Sanders said President Trump remains committed to achieving the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of the peninsula and that his “maximum pressure campaign” against North Korea must continue until it abandons its nuclear and missile programs.
Trump imposed fresh sanctions against North Korea late last week.
During Sunday’s closing ceremony for the games, the office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced that a North Korean delegate to the Olympics said his country is willing to hold talks with the U.S. after decades of tensions between the two countries, which have no formal diplomatic relations.
The North has “ample intentions of holding talks with the United States,” Moon’s office said. The North’s delegation also agreed that “South-North relations and U.S.-North Korean relations should be improved together,” the statement said.
Sanders said the U.S., South Korea and the international community “broadly agree” that denuclearization must be the outcome of any dialogue with North Korea. She said North Korea has a bright path ahead of it if it chooses denuclearization.
“We will see if Pyongyang’s message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps along the path to denuclearization,” she said in a written statement. “In the meantime, the United States and the world must continue to make clear that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are a dead end.”
Trump once scolded Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who favors diplomacy with North Korea, for “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” which is Trump’s derisive nickname for North Korea’s leader.
At the Olympics opening ceremony earlier this month, the North Korean leader’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, shared a VIP box with Moon and Vice President Mike Pence, who led a separate U.S. delegation, creating some awkward moments. Though Pence stood to cheer the entrance of the U.S. team, he remained seated when athletes from North and South Korea marched together behind a “unification” flag, leaving Moon to instinctively turn around and shake Kim’s sister’s hand.
Pence and Kim Yo Jong did not speak. Pence’s office claimed afterward that the North had pulled out of a planned meeting at the last minute.
During her visit, Ivanka Trump sat in the same box with Kim Yong Choi, vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Worker’s Party Central Committee. They did not appear to interact when Jae-in shook hands with dignitaries at the beginning of Sunday’s closing ceremony.
Trump stepped up the pressure campaign against North Korea last week by slapping sanctions on scores of companies and ships accused of illicit trading with the pariah nation. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the U.S. has now blacklisted virtually all ships being used by the North.