WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) – Two senior South Korean officials arrived in the United States on Thursday to brief U.S. officials on their meeting this week with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Pyongyang’s apparent willingness to discuss denuclearization with Washington.
South Korea’s National Security Office head Chung Eui-yong and National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon are expected to explain North Korea’s stance on possible future talks with Washington and the prospect of Pyongyang suspending nuclear tests if the security of the North’s government is assured.
They are due to meet with U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and possibly President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence, a South Korean official said.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said Chung and Suh arrived in Washington on Thursday morning after an overnight flight from Seoul.
The South Korean official said Chung had already spoken to McMaster on the phone, shortly after completing this week’s visit to economically and diplomatically isolated North Korea.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was guarded when asked on Wednesday about the prospect of North Korean engagement.
“Obviously we’re cautiously optimistic that there is some forward progress here,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.
“But we’ve been optimistic before, so we’re going to have to watch actions and see if they match words,” he said.
Tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs rose to the highest level in years in 2017. Pyongyang pursues its weapons programs in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, with shrill, bellicose rhetoric coming from both Kim and Trump.
North Korea has boasted of its plans to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the mainland United States. However, fears of all-out war eased last month, coinciding with North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics in South Korea.
‘PEACE MUST PREVAIL’
Chung and Suh were part of a delegation that visited Pyongyang earlier this week in the first encounter between South Korean government officials and Kim, where the North Korean leader said he was open to denuclearization talks with the United States.
They also agreed that the two Koreas would hold their first summit in more than a decade in late April. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said sanctions should not be eased for the sake of talks and that nothing less than denuclearization of North Korea should be the final goal for talks.
China’s foreign minister called on the United States and North Korea to have talks as soon as possible and said peace must prevail.
“Although light has already become visible at the end of the tunnel, the road ahead will not be smooth sailing,” foreign minister Wang Yi told a news briefing in Beijing on Thursday.
A senior U.S. administration official said no decision on the possibility of the United States joining a summit of North and South Korea was expected to be made at this week’s meeting with McMaster. Those discussions would be conducted in private among U.S. officials, the source said.
Chung will visit China and Russia after returning from the United States, while Suh will head to Japan to brief officials.
(This version of the story corrects day in fourth paragraph)
Reporting by Christine Kim in SEOUL and Steve Holland in WASHINGTON; Additional reporting by Philip Stewart in WASHINGTON and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Richard Chang and Will Dunham