WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has appeared to endorse closer post-Olympics engagement between South and North Korea with an eye to eventual U.S.-North Korean talks, but has agreed with Seoul that sanctions must be intensified to push Pyongyang to negotiate an end to its nuclear weapons program.
The prospect of negotiations comes after months of tensions over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, in which U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un traded insults and threats while the U.N. tightened sanctions.
Speaking on his way home from the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea and the first high-level North-South talks in years, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Washington would keep up its "maximum pressure campaign" against Pyongyang, but at the same time would be open to talks without pre-conditions.
“No pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” Pence was quoted as saying by the Washington Post. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”
Trump and his senior aides have given conflicting signals in the past year over the potential for diplomatic engagement to resolve the crisis over North Korea's development of nuclear weapons capable of hitting the United States.
During his 2016 election campaign Trump proposed a major shift in U.S. policy by saying he was willing to talk personally to Kim.
Repeated missile tests by North Korea and its biggest ever nuclear detonation last September led Trump to dub Kim "little rocket man" and warn that he might have no choice but to totally destroy his country.
Officials have since said the administration has discussed the possibility of preventative strikes to press North Korea to give up its weapons program, raising fears of a catastrophic new Korean War.
At the same time, Washington has repeatedly held out the prospect of talks with North Korea, but stressed that they must have the ultimate aim of it giving up its weapons program, something Pyongyang has repeatedly rejected.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has at times appeared at odds with the White House in his advocacy of dialogue and in October, Trump publicly admonished him not to waste his time trying to negotiate.
In December, Tillerson said the United States was “ready to talk any time North Korea would like to talk" without pre-conditions, but was quickly slapped down by the White House, which said Pyongyang would have to improve its behavior first. Tillerson subsequently urged a "sustained cessation" of weapons testing to allow for talks.
Trump's hardline approach softened after the first North-South talks in two years in January and he again expressed a willingness to hold direct talks with Kim.
Tillerson said last month Washington was supportive of the North-South dialogue, even though North Korea had a record of seeking to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies through "charm offensives."
He said he was confident the sides would eventually get to the negotiating table, but if Kim wanted to talk "he's got to tell me he wants to talk. We're not going to chase him."
Tillerson again said on Monday it was up to North Korea to decide when it was ready to engage in a "sincere" and "meaningful" way and that it was too early to judge whether a new diplomatic process was underway.
"They know what has to be on the table for conversations," he said.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Andrew Hay)