Vice President Mike Pence raises prospect of talks with North Korea amid 'intensified' pressure

SEOUL/WASHINGTON, Feb 12 (Reuters) - The United States may be looking more favorably at diplomatic engagement with North Korea, possibly holding dialog, as South Korea pushes forward with plans to establish grounds for a rare summit between the two Koreas.

Vice President Mike Pence said in a newspaper interview the United States and South Korea had agreed on terms for further diplomatic engagement with North Korea, first with Seoul and then possibly leading to direct talks with Washington without pre-conditions.

The prospect of talks comes after months of tension between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, with U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un trading insults and threats of destruction amid tightening sanctions from the United Nations.

Trump has at times questioned the purpose of further talks with the North after years of negotiations by previous U.S. administrations failed to halt the North's weapons programs.

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VP Mike Pence and Kim Jong Un's sister
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VP Mike Pence and Kim Jong Un's sister
Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics ? Opening ceremony ? Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - Pyeongchang, South Korea ? February 9, 2018 - President of South Korea Moon Jae-in, his wife Kim Jung-Sook, President of the Presidium of the Supreme People?s Assembly of North Korea Kim Young Nam, Kim Yo-Jong, the sister of North Koreas leader Kim Jong-un, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the opening ceremony. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics ? Opening ceremony ? Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - Pyeongchang, South Korea ? February 9, 2018 - President of South Korea Moon Jae-in, his wife Kim Jung-Sook, President of the Presidium of the Supreme People?s Assembly of North Korea Kim Young Nam, Kim Yo-Jong, the sister of North Koreas leader Kim Jong-un, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during the opening ceremony. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics ? Opening ceremony ? Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - Pyeongchang, South Korea ? February 9, 2018 - President of South Korea Moon Jae-in, his wife Kim Jung-Sook, President of the Presidium of the Supreme People?s Assembly of North Korea Kim Young Nam, Kim Yo-Jong, the sister of North Koreas leader Kim Jong-un, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during the opening ceremony. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics ? Opening ceremony ? Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium - Pyeongchang, South Korea ? February 9, 2018 - President of South Korea Moon Jae-in, his wife Kim Jung-Sook, President of the Presidium of the Supreme People?s Assembly of North Korea Kim Young Nam, Kim Yo-Jong, the sister of North Koreas leader Kim Jong-un, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during the opening ceremony. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
US Vice President Mike Pence (front L), Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (front R), North Korea's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam (back 2nd L) and North Korea's Kim Jong Un;s sister Kim Yo Jong (back R) watch the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Pyeongchang Stadium on February 9, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Patrick Semansky (Photo credit should read PATRICK SEMANSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 9: President of South Korea Moon Jae-in, his wife Kim Jung-sook, Karen Pence (wife of Karen Pence), Mike Pence, Vice-President of USA, above them President of North Korea Kim Yong-nam and Kim Yo-jong, sister of President of North Korea Kim Jong-un during the Opening Ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium on February 9, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - US Vice President Mike Pence (R) and North Korea's Kim Jong Uns sister Kim Yo Jong attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Pyeongchang Stadium on February 9, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Odd ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 9: President of South Korea Moon Jae-in, his wife Kim Jung-sook, Karen Pence (wife of Karen Pence), Mike Pence, Vice-President of USA, above them President of North Korea Kim Yong-nam and Kim Yo-jong, sister of President of North Korea Kim Jong-un during the Opening Ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium on February 9, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 09: President of South Korea Moon Jae-in, his wife Kim Jung-sook, Karen Pence (wife of Karen Pence), Mike Pence, Vice-President of USA, above them President of North Korea Kim Yong-nam and Kim Yo-jong, sister of President of North Korea Kim Jong-un during the opening ceremony of the XXIII Olympic Winter Games at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium on February 9, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 09: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong (back left) watch on during the Opening Ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium on February 9, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (front R) sits beside US Vice President Mike Pence (front 2nd R) and Pence's wife Karen as they watch the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games with North Korea's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam (back 2nd R) and North Korea's Kim Jong Uns sister Kim Yo Jong (back R) at the Pyeongchang Stadium on February 9, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Patrick Semansky (Photo credit should read PATRICK SEMANSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Dignitaries including (bottom L to R) South Korea's President Moon Jae-in, Moon's wife Kim Jung-Sook, US Vice President Mike Pence, Pence's wife Karen Pence, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, North Korea's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam (back 3rd R), North Korea's Kim Jong Uns sister Kim Yo Jong (back 2nd R) and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier's wife Elke Buedenbender (back R) attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Pyeongchang Stadium on February 9, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Patrick Semansky (Photo credit should read PATRICK SEMANSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 09: Vice President Mike Pence, bottom right, speaks with second lady Karen Pence at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics, with behind Pence are Kim Yong Nam, second from top right, president of the Presidium of North Korean Parliament, and Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium on February 9, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Patrick Semansky - Pool /Getty Images)
PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 09: South Korean President Moon Jae-in, center, stands alongside first lady Kim Jung-sook, U.S. second lady Karen Pence and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence as the South Korean national anthem is played at the opening ceremony with top left Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of North Korean Parliament, and Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium on February 9, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Patrick Semansky - Pool /Getty Images)
Karen Pence, wife of US Vice President Mike Pence, (R), North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong (C) and Kim Jung-Sook (L), the wife of South Korea's President Moon Jae-in, attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Pyeongchang Stadium on February 9, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Odd ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Karen Pence (front R), wife of US Vice President Mike Pence, North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong (top C), North Korea's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam (top L), Kim Jung-Sook (front C), the wife of South Korea's President Moon Jae-in (front L), attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Pyeongchang Stadium on February 9, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Odd ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
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Last year, North Korea conducted dozens of missile launches and its sixth and largest nuclear test in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions as it pursues its goal of developing a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the United States.

Relations between the two Koreas have improved in recent weeks, with Pyongyang agreeing to send its highest ranking delegation ever to attend the Winter Olympic Games, being held in the South Korean resort of Pyeongchang.

The visit included an invitation for South Korean President Moon Jae-in to travel to Pyongyang for talks. Such a meeting, if it came about, would mark the first inter-Korea summit since 2007.

Speaking to the Washington Post aboard Air Force Two on his way home from the Games, Pence said Washington would keep up its "maximum pressure campaign" against Pyongyang but would be open to possible talks at the same time.

“The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearisation,” Pence was quoted on Sunday as saying. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”

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North Korea and South Korea hit the ice
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North Korea and South Korea hit the ice
JINCHEON-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - JANUARY 26: In this handout image provided by the South Korean Unification Ministry, North Korean women's ice hockey coach Pak Chol-Ho, center, speaks during a meeting with South Korean women's hockey team at the South Korea's national training center on January 26, 2018 in Jincheon-gun, South Korea. (Photo by South Korean Unification Ministry via Getty Images)
JINCHEON-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - JANUARY 26: In this handout image provided by the Joint Government Support Corps, North Korean women's ice hockey players training with Sarah Murray (C), head coach of the two Korea's unified women's ice hockey team at South Korea's national training center on January 26, 2018 in Jincheon-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Joint Government Support Corps via Getty Images)
JINCHEON-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - JANUARY 26: In this handout image provided by the South Korean Unification Ministry, South Korean women's hockey team players (R) talk with North Korean women's ice hockey team players (L) at the South Korea's national training center on January 26, 2018 in Jincheon-gun, South Korea. (Photo by South Korean Unification Ministry via Getty Images)
JINCHEON-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - JANUARY 26: In this handout image provided by the Joint Government Support Corps, North Korean women's ice hockey players training at South Korea's national training center on January 26, 2018 in Jincheon-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Joint Government Support Corps via Getty Images)
JINCHEON-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - JANUARY 26: In this handout image provided by the Joint Government Support Corps, North Korean women's ice hockey players training with South Korean goalie at South Korea's national training center on January 26, 2018 in Jincheon-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Joint Government Support Corps via Getty Images)
JINCHEON-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - JANUARY 26: In this handout image provided by the South Korean Unification Ministry, North Korean women's ice hockey team players watch South Korean women's ice hockey team's training at the South Korea's national training center on January 26, 2018 in Jincheon-gun, South Korea. (Photo by South Korean Unification Ministry via Getty Images)
JINCHEON-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - JANUARY 26: In this handout image provided by the Joint Government Support Corps, North Korean women's ice hockey players talks with South Korean coach during their training at South Korea's national training center on January 26, 2018 in Jincheon-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Joint Government Support Corps via Getty Images)
JINCHEON-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - JANUARY 26: In this handout image provided by the South Korean Unification Ministry, South Korea and North Korea women's ice hockey team players meet at the South Korea's national training center on January 26, 2018 in Jincheon-gun, South Korea. (Photo by South Korean Unification Ministry via Getty Images)
JINCHEON-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - JANUARY 26: In this handout image provided by the South Korean Unification Ministry, North Korean women's ice hockey team players watch South Korean women's ice hockey team's training at the South Korea's national training center on January 26, 2018 in Jincheon-gun, South Korea. (Photo by South Korean Unification Ministry via Getty Images)
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A South Korean government official said Seoul's stance was that separate talks with North Korea by South Korea and the United States should both lead the denuclearisation of the North while sanctions and pressure continue to be applied.

North Korea defends its weapons programs as essential to counter U.S. aggression, saying regular war drills between the United States and the South are preparations for invasion. The South hosts 28,500 U.S. troops, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean war.

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South Korea said it will seek ways to continue engaging North Korea, including trying to arrange more reunions for families divided by the war and lowering military tensions.

The statement from the Ministry of Unification came after the North Korean delegation concluded its three-day visit.

The two Koreas are still technically at war after the 1950-53 conflict on the Korean peninsula ended in a ceasefire and not a truce.

"(The visit) shows that North Korea has a strong will to improve inter-Korean relations and that Pyongyang can make unprecedented and bold measures if deemed necessary," the ministry said.

The visit of the delegation, which included North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, intrigued many in South Korea, but also met skepticism about the North's willingness to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons. North Korea has said it will never give up its nuclear deterrent and critics in the South see its participation in the Games as a reward for bad behavior.

The South's Unification Ministry said steps to improve ties would be led by the two Koreas, but with the support of the international community.

"Under a strong position for denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, Korea will faithfully implement the international sanctions on North Korea, while also adhering to the principle of resolution through peaceful means," the statement said.

Kim Yo Jong and her delegation spent three days dining with top government officials, watching the opening ceremony and cheering for the united women's ice hockey team the two Koreas have fielded at this Olympics.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach will visit North Korea after the Games as part of an agreement between the IOC and North and South Korea, a source within the Olympic movement told Reuters on Monday.

(Reporting by Christine Kim in SEOUL and Matt Spetalnick in WASHINGTON; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Nick Macfie)

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