South Koreans meet White House aides to ‘talk about talks’ with North Korea

WASHINGTON — South Korean officials briefed President Donald Trump’s national security team Thursday about their discussions this week with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his offer to negotiate a freeze of his country’s nuclear weapons programs, but U.S. officials warned that talks are still not certain.

The South Korean delegation, led by Chung Eui-yong, the national security director, and Suh Hoon, chief of the National Intelligence Service, said it was delivering a message from Kim directly to the White House.

Meeting at the White House for several hours, the South Korean team briefed national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.

Ever since a five-member South Korean delegation returned Tuesday from meeting Kim in Pyongyang, North Korea, the government in Seoul has appeared optimistic that a diplomatic breakthrough is possible that could break the nuclear impasse on the Korean peninsula.

In what could prove pivotal, Kim will meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in next month in the third-ever meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea since their war ended in an uneasy cease-fire in 1953.

Trump also voiced cautious optimism, saying he hoped the North Koreans were “sincere” in their offer to engage in talks. But he said he’s prepared “to go whichever path is necessary.”

Other members of the administration urged caution, saying multiple diplomatic attempts to curb North Korean’s nuclear program since the early 1990s all have failed, and that Kim’s government may be seeking to get out of onerous sanctions or buy time to make a more advanced warhead.

“We’re a long ways from negotiations,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Ethiopia, where he was on a five-nation tour of Africa.

Saying the Trump administration had to be “very clear-eyed,” he said the first step would be “to have some kind of talks about talks” to set the parameters of any negotiations.

“I don’t know yet, until we are able to meet ourselves face-to-face with representatives of North Korea, whether the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations,” Tillerson added.

Tillerson has long promoted diplomacy with North Korea to avoid a potential military conflict with the nuclear-armed nation.

The apparent thaw began on Jan. 1 when Kim offered to send a North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February.

Vice President Mike Pence, who headed the U.S. delegation to the Olympics, had planned a secret meeting in South Korea with Kim’s younger sister, but the North Koreans canceled the meeting after Pence said the U.S. was about to impose stiff new sanctions.

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