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South Korean leader says North appears serious about denuclearization, even if U.S. troops remain

South Korean leader says North appears serious about denuclearization, even if U.S. troops remain
South Korean President Moon Jae-in burns incense at a national cemetery in northern Seoul to mark the anniversary of the April 19 Revolution, a popular pro-democracy and anti-dictatorship uprising in 1960. (Yonhap)

South Korea's president Thursday expressed fresh optimism about a resolution to the nation's decades-long conflict with North Korea, saying the North might be willing to denuclearize even if the U.S. keeps its troops on the Korean peninsula.

President Moon Jae-in, who came to office last year seeking to renew dialogue with North Korea, said leader Kim Jong Un appears serious about denuclearization.

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Moon also said the North, which sparked worldwide alarm with its repeated ballistic missile tests last year, might be willing to accept "complete denuclearization" without conditions that would upset the United States.

U.S. troops have remained in South Korea since an armistice ended the fighting in the Korean War in 1953, and North Korea's oft-repeated demands that they withdraw long have been seen as a deal-breaker in negotiations. There are about 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea.

"The North Koreans did not present any conditions that the United States could not accept, such as the withdrawal of American troops in South Korea," Moon told a group of news executives in Seoul. "[North Korea] is only asking for an end to a hostile policy toward North Korea and for a security guarantee.''

North Korean officials did not immediately respond to Moon's comments.

The South Korean president's statements come a week before his planned summit with Kim, which would be only the third top-level summit between the two nations since an armistice in 1953 ended Korean War hostilities.

The pair plan to meet April 27 on the South Korean side of Panmunjom, a diplomatic outpost inside the heavily fortified border separating the two countries. Working-level talks about that meeting are still progressing, though Moon's government said ceremonial portions of it could be livestreamed to the world.

The summit is expected to focus on denuclearization — the North claims it can strike the United States with a long-range, nuclear-armed missile — but also on improving inter-Korean relations, which have been especially strained in recent years, and establishing a peace deal that could formally end the war.

A peace deal could require the involvement of the United States and China, which were involved in the original armistice. But an agreement between the North and South could propel those countries to sign off, experts say.

The Moon-Kim meeting is expected to be followed by another with President Trump, perhaps in May or June, though the details about the location and agenda aren't fully known. Trump this week said CIA Director Mike Pompeo had visited the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, to meet with Kim over the Easter weekend to discuss the summit.

Moon told the group in his speech that the Trump-Kim summit would only be possible because the North has decided to change its course.

North Korean propagandists like to demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula — it is one of their major talking points — but former diplomats say that they have not been so insistent in private since the 1990s.

"It is their public stance that U.S. troops have to go, but sometimes in private they say otherwise,'' said Joel S. Wit, a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University who has attended back-channel negotiations with the North Koreans.

The late Kim Jong Il, father of the current North Korean leader, told South Korean officials during a landmark summit in Pyongyang in 2000 that U.S. troops could be a stabilizing force on the peninsula — implying that the troops could be deterrent in case of hostilities by China or Japan, according to Wit.

"If the U.S. is no longer our enemy, there is no reason for the U.S. troops to go,'' is how Leon V. Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York, summarized the North Korean attitude.

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For months, experts on the region have been skeptical that the North would ever agree to drop its nuclear pursuits, which give the nation leverage in the region and Kim — a third-generation dynastic leader — legitimacy at home.

Kim spent much of 2017 test-launching ballistic missiles — alarming key United States allies, including Japan — and conducting an underground nuclear test. He did so while also trading insults with Trump, calling the president last summer a "dotard." Trump has called Kim "Little Rocket Man."

In a New Year's Day speech, Kim also proclaimed his country's ability — though not an offensive willingness — to strike the United States mainland with a nuclear-armed missile. Some experts question whether the North is yet capable of that, but many also recognize the nation's rapid progress in that direction.

Despite the developments in 2017, Kim also signaled a willingness to accept Moon's overtures for participation in the Winter Olympics, held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this year. After historic talks, the North sent nearly two dozen athletes to the Games and helped field a combined Korean women's hockey team. The two nations also marched together at the opening ceremony under a unification flag.

Many details remain unknown, and the North has made few public statements about its recent diplomatic efforts.

The proposed meeting between Trump and Kim would be a first for a sitting American president and a North Korean leader. Trump suggested this week that he might abandon the talks it they didn't appear fruitful.

Moon acknowledged in his speech that the United States and its interests remain a key component of all the planned talks. He also said the results during the summits might not solve the tensions on the issue, but that the talks sparked by the Olympics could drive more dialogue in the future.

"It would be best to reach an agreement on the big picture through the two planned summits," he said. "But even if we fail, it is clearly important to continue the dialogue. We will try to maintain the momentum."

Special correspondent Stiles reported from Seoul and Times staff writer Demick from New York.

UPDATES:

2:50 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction, analysis and background.

10:05 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times reporting.

This article was originally published at 8:05 a.m.

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