US president Donald Trump said Saturday he would be willing to speak directly with Kim Jong-Un, voicing hope that rare talks between North and South Korea could help deescalate the crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear drive.
Trump's remarks were a further pivot from his often-bellicose rhetoric on North Korea and Kim, with whom he has engaged in a war of words that raised fears of nuclear war as Pyongyang carried out missile and nuclear tests.
‘I always believe in talking,’ Trump said at the Camp David presidential retreat when asked if he would speak to Kim by phone.
‘Absolutely I would do that, no problem with that at all,’ Trump said, while making clear this did not mean he would do so without preconditions.
North and South Korea have agreed to hold their first official talks in more than two years, and Trump expressed hopes that they would go beyond discussions of Pyongyang's participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics in the South, which a North Korean Olympic official said Saturday was ‘likely’.
‘I would love to see them take it beyond the Olympics,’ Trump said. ‘And at the appropriate time, we'll get involved.’
He added that if something could come out of the talks, ‘that would be a great thing for all of humanity.’
Kim said in a New Year speech that his country wished success for the Olympics, to be held from February 9-25, and would consider sending a delegation — remarks that set off a tentative rapprochement after weeks of high tensions.
The North and South agreed to the talks on Friday, and Seoul has proposed sending a five-member delegation led by a government minister to the talks in the truce village of Panmunjom on Tuesday, according to the unification ministry in Seoul.
Seoul and organisers are keen for the North to take part in the Games to help ease tensions.
Chang Ung, North Korea's representative to the International Olympic Committee, said Saturday the reclusive nation is ‘likely to participate’ in next month's Winter Games.
Japanese news agency Kyodo said Chang had made the brief comment to reporters during a stopover at Beijing's international airport, and that he was believed to be travelling to Switzerland, where the IOC is based.
The two Koreas have been separated by the world's most heavily-militarised border since the Korean War ended in a stalemate in 1953, but tensions have worsened recently over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programmes.
In recent months, the North has held multiple missile launches and its sixth and most powerful nuclear test — purportedly of a hydrogen bomb — in violation of UN resolutions banning such activity by the isolated nation.
The region has also been rattled by tit-for-tat threats and insults between Kim and Trump.
Seoul has reacted warmly to Kim's Olympic overture and the two Koreas this past week restored a cross-border hotline that had been shut down since 2016 and agreed to hold the talks next week — the first since December 2015.
Trump, who has jumped between taking a provocative approach towards North Korea and calling for a peaceful resolution, on Saturday took credit for paving the way for the talks.
‘If I weren't involved, they wouldn't be talking about the Olympics right now, they'd be doing no talking,’ he said.
‘For 25 years they (South Korea) haven't been using a tough stance. They've been giving everything.’
Also in recent days, the United States and South Korea agreed to delay their joint military exercises until after the Games, apparently to help ease nerves.
The regular joint drills have been criticised by some as adding to regional tensions. Beijing and Moscow have both called for them to be suspended.
North Korea's young leader has shrugged off multiple sets of new UN Security Council sanctions as his regime drives forward with its weapons programmes, which it says are needed to defend against US aggression.
The latest round of sanctions passed in December bans the supply of nearly 75 per cent of refined oil products to North Korea, puts a cap on crude deliveries and orders all North Korean nationals working abroad to be sent back by the end of 2019.
Sales of all industrial machinery, trucks, iron, steel and other metals to North Korea have been banned, as well as a range of Northern exports.
China, North Korea's longtime ally and most important economic lifeline, said it had begun enforcing the new restrictions on Saturday.
South Korean opposition parties have struck a cautious tone over the latest developments, warning against making concessions to the North to secure its Olympic participation.
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