SEOUL • Senior officials from Pyongyang visiting South Korea yesterday said North Korea was open to talks with the United States, hours after it accused Washington of trying to stir up conflict on the peninsula with new sanctions.
In Pyeongchang for the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics, the visiting delegation also said developments in relations between the two Koreas and between North Korea and the US should go hand in hand, the South's presidency said in a statement.
The delegation, led by blacklisted North Korean general Kim Yong Chol, met South Korean President Moon Jae In at an undisclosed location in the Olympic city.
The statement did not make any mention of North Korea's nuclear programme or whether the dialogue would be about denuclearisation. But still, this is the first sign of willingness from North Korea in years, and it comes when the Trump administration has been signalling an openness to talk without pre-conditions.
Mr Kim, a vice-chairman of a key Communist Party committee dealing with inter-Korea relations and a former head of the North's military intelligence service, is widely accused of masterminding two deadly attacks in 2010: A torpedo attack on the Cheonan naval corvette, which killed 46 South Korean sailors, and the shelling of an island, Yeonpyeong, which killed four.
Yesterday's closing ceremony was attended by Mr Moon, the North Korean delegation and US President Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka, among other dignitaries. There was no sign of any interaction between Ms Trump and Mr Kim during the event.
The Winter Olympics have given a boost to engagement between the two Koreas after more than a year of sharply rising tensions over the North's missile tests and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of United Nations sanctions.
But the closing days of the Games were overshadowed by the US announcement on Friday that it was imposing its largest package of sanctions aimed at getting North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programmes.
Mr Trump had warned of a "phase two" that could be "very, very unfortunate for the world" if the sanctions did not work.
North Korea denounced the sanctions yesterday in a statement carried on its state media, and said a blockade by the US would be considered an act of war.
"On the eve of the closing of the Olympics, the United States is running amok to bring another dark cloud of confrontation and war over the Korean peninsula by announcing enormous sanctions against the DPRK," the North's KCNA state news agency said, using the initials of the country's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Earlier, about 100 conservative South Korean lawmakers and activists staged a sit-in near the border with North Korea, facing off against about 2,500 South Korean police to protest against the arrival of the delegation led by Mr Kim.
But the delegation took a different route, prompting the opposition Korea Liberty Party to accuse Mr Moon's administration of "abuse of power and an act of treason" by re-routing the motorcade to shield it from the protest.
The North's decision to send Mr Kim has enraged families of the sailors killed in the torpedo attack and threatens the mood of rapprochement that Seoul wants to create at what it calls the "Peace Games". North Korea has denied its involvement in the sinking.
Meanwhile, China also reacted angrily to the new US measures, saying on Saturday that the unilateral targeting of Chinese companies and people risked harming cooperation on North Korea.
Ms Trump had met Mr Moon on Friday as a representative of the US, but no official meeting between the US and North Korean delegations was planned.
REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST