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South Korean delegation meets Kim Jong Un

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un greets a member of the special delegation of South Korea's President at a dinner in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 6, 2018. KCNA/via Reuters

SEOUL (Reuters) – A South Korean delegation met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un yesterday, a South Korean official said, after arriving in the North on a visit aimed at encouraging North Korea and the US to talk.

Both North Korea and the US have expressed willingness to talk, but US President Donald Trump demands the North first gives up its nuclear weapons programme.

The North, which has vowed never to give up its nuclear deterrent against what it sees as US hostility, says it will not sit down to talks under preconditions.

Reclusive North Korea, which has made no secret of its pursuit of a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the mainland US in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, is also concerned about a joint US-South Korea military exercise, which it sees as preparation for war.

South Korean officials have said the drill will start next month as planned, after being postponed for the Winter Olympics held last month in the South.

The 10-member South Korean delegation, led by National Security Office head Chung Eui-yong, was greeted by North Korean officials after landing in Pyongyang, said Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for South Korea’s presidential office.

The North Koreans at the airport included Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country and Kim Yong Chol, who heads the United Front Department, the North Korean office responsible for handling inter-Korean affairs. Both visited South Korea last month during the Winter Olympics.

The South Korean delegation was later invited to join Kim Jong Un at a dinner, the South Korean spokesman added.

The South Korean officials are the most senior officials from the South to meet Kim Jong Un since he took power in late 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

“We will deliver President Moon Jae-in’s wish to bring about denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and permanent peace by extending the goodwill and better inter-Korean relations created by the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics,” Mr Chung said in South Korea before their departure.

Mr Chung’s team includes National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon and Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung.

The delegation is expected to take part in another meeting set for early Tuesday, said a South Korean official who declined to be identified.

The government hopes the visit will create “a positive atmosphere”, Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told a regular briefing.

Mr Chung and Mr Suh are due to fly to Washington later in the week to brief US officials on their discussions in the North.

Thawing relations between the Korean neighbours have prompted speculation about direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang after months of tension and exchanges of bellicose insults between Mr Trump and Kim Jong Un fuelled fears of war.

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