U.S. plans bans on North Korea, as South pursues peace

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US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with state and local officials in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, on February 22, 2018. (Photo by AFP)

The United States is reportedly set to unveil a large package of sanctions against North Korea, even as Pyongyang is continuing to engage its main rival Seoul in pursuit of peace.

The Trump administration will announce on Friday what is being described as “the largest package of new sanctions” ever against Pyongyang in an attempt to put more pressure on the North Korean government over its nuclear and missile programs, a senior administration official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Trump is expected to talk about the new measures during a mid-morning speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference. The Treasury Department will get into the details later in the day, according to the official.

North Korea, already under numerous harsh UN and other international sanctions, has resisted the pressure campaign led by Washington to try to force Pyongyang to halt its weapons program. It has vowed to keep up the development of its weapons programs as a deterrent against foreign aggression, including by the US, which has substantial offensive military presence in the region.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who led a US delegation to the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in South Korea’s PyeongChang, had reportedly planned to secretly meet with a high-level delegation of North Korean leaders. However, the North Koreans canceled at the last minute, according to the U.S. State Department. The cancellation allegedly came after Pence spoke of sanctions.

The U.S. Vice President used tough rhetoric against Pyongyang again on Thursday in response to criticism of his choice to pass up several opportunities to meet North Korean officials during the Olympics. Pence sat in close proximity to Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, during the opening ceremony in PyeongChang.

The two Koreas have been improving ties since last month, when Pyongyang announced its willingness to participate in the Winter Olympics, a decision that led to the historic visit to the South by Kim’s sister, during which an invitation was extended to President Moon Jae-in for a visit to Pyongyang.

The two neighbors have been separated by a heavily-militarized border since the end of Korean War in 1953.

South approves visit by sanctioned North Korean official

Meanwhile, Seoul said on Friday that it had approved a visit by another high-level North Korean official, currently sanctioned by the U.S. and South, for the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang on Sunday.

Kim Yong-chol, the vice-chairman of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, will lead a high-level delegation to South Korea. The delegation is also scheduled to hold a meeting with Moon.

He was previously chief of a top North Korean military intelligence agency, which Seoul blamed for the 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy ship that killed 46 sailors.

The South’s Unification Ministry Baik Tae-hyun said on Friday that they prefer to focus on dialog with North Korean officials rather than “on their past or who they are.”

“Under current difficult circumstances, we have decided to focus on whether peace on the Korean Peninsula and improvement in inter-Korean relations can be derived from dialog with (the visiting North Korean officials), not on their past or who they are,” Baik told a media briefing.

A South Korean lawmaker briefed by the country’s spy agency also said on Friday that Kim Yong-chol was the “right person” for inter-Korean talks, according to Yonhap news agency.

“Kim Yong-chol is the top official regarding inter-Korean relations and he is being accepted (here) as the right person to discuss various issues like easing military tension, improving inter-Korean ties and de-nuclearization,” said Kang Seok-ho.

His visit will coincide with a visit by Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, who is scheduled to arrive in South Korea later on Friday. She will attend a dinner with Moon and on Sunday, the Winter Olympics’ Closing Ceremony.

Moon’s office has said there are no official opportunities for U.S. and North Korean officials to meet there.

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