South Korean president says Olympics have lowered tensions with North

South Korea President Moon Jae-in, shown in a November news conference with U.S. President Donald Trump, said the Olympics could lead to an improving relationship with North Korea. (Bloomberg photo by SeongJoon Cho)
South Korea President Moon Jae-in, shown in a November news conference with U.S. President Donald Trump, said the Olympics could lead to an improving relationship with North Korea. (Bloomberg photo by SeongJoon Cho)

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — In a visit Saturday to this Winter Olympics host city, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said that the Games have helped to lower tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and he expressed hope that the rapprochement would "lead to dialogue between the United States and North Korea."

"There have been many achievements in advancing inter-Korean talks," Moon said, "and I hope that this will lead to an improvement in inter-Korean relations, and not only inter-Korean relations, but I also hope - and we also believe that there has been, slowly but gradually, growing common sense for the need of dialogue between the United States and North Korea."

Moon's comments show just how quickly the atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula has shifted — a change that is placing pressure on the United States to soften its stance toward the North.

The Olympics, for Moon, have brought a series of significant steps in relations with the North: The two Koreas have shared a women's hockey team and marched at the Opening Ceremonies under a unified flag. A large group of North Korean musicians and synchronized cheerleaders arrived for the Games. Most important, so did Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Kim Yo Jong met with Moon at South Korea's presidential palace and later became the intermediary for an invitation from her brother, who asked Moon to visit Pyongyang for a summit.

Moon on Saturday said "it is a bit too early" to consider such a meeting.

Kim, the third-generation totalitarian leader, has never met a foreign head of state since he took control of the country in 2011. But Moon, who took office last year, has pushed to improve relations with the North. Leaders from North and South Korea last met in 2007.

The Trump administration has shifted its own stance toward North Korea in recent weeks, moving from leaning toward military action to instead considering dialogue. Vice President Mike Pence, who traveled to South Korea for the start of the Olympics, told The Washington Post's Josh Rogin that the United States is willing to sit down for talks with the North — while still providing pressure to denuclearize. The hope is that the North would receive diplomatic or economic benefits only if it took steps to dismantle its weapons program. The North has made rapid nuclear progress in recent years, and some experts believe the country has already successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead — the kind of weapon it could use to target the U.S. mainland.

Moon said that he hopes "dialogue between the two Koreas will be able to lead to dialogue between the United States and North Korea, and eventually denuclearization dialogue."

Until recently, relations with North Korea seemed at a crisis point. North Korea was testing nuclear weapons, launching missiles toward Japan, all as President Donald Trump said the U.S. was "locked and loaded" to respond. Speaking in September to the United Nations, Trump called Kim "Rocket Man" and threatened to "totally destroy North Korea." Kim said Trump would "pay dearly."

Securing North Korea's participation in the Olympics — a deal reached in January — marked a turning point, Moon said.

"We were able to lower some of the tensions that were becoming very heightened on the Korean Peninsula," Moon said. "As a result, I believe we were able to host a very safe Winter Olympic Games."

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