American and North Korean officials didn’t exchange words or handshakes at the Olympics. Here, North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, back right, at the Closing Ceremony with, from front left, Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife Kim Jung-sook, and presidential adviser Ivanka Trump.
Photo:

Michael Probst/Associated Press
By

SEOUL—South Korea’s leader urged the U.S. to ease preconditions for talks with North Korea, as the left-leaning administration in Seoul sought to extend an Olympics-driven rapprochement with Pyongyang and head off the possibility of a new flare-up.

President

Moon Jae-in

said in a meeting on Monday with a special envoy of Chinese President Xi Jinping that “the U.S. needed to lower the threshold for dialogue” and that Pyongyang should show a willingness to denuclearize, according to a spokesman for Seoul’s presidential Blue House.

The remarks, made in a meeting between Mr. Moon and Chinese Vice Premier

Liu Yandong,

also appeared aimed at bridging an impasse around U.S.-South Korea military exercises planned for the spring. Those exercises typically enrage North Korea.

The U.S. has long said that it is only willing to sit down for serious negotiations with North Korea if it is to discuss denuclearization. The North has said its nuclear arsenal isn’t up for discussion and that it is only willing to meet the U.S. to certify its nuclear status.

“Neither side has shown any willingness to budge from their opening position. They’ve interpreted it as a sign of weakness if they do,” said Daniel Sneider, a visiting scholar and lecturer in East Asian Studies at Stanford University.

During the Olympics, Mr. Moon used his position as host to try to get the U.S. and North Korea to the negotiating table. At the Opening Ceremony, he sought to create the chance for an encounter between U.S. Vice President

Mike Pence

and a North Korean delegation that included the ceremonial head of state and the sister of leader Kim Jong Un.

At the Closing Ceremony on Sunday, Mr. Moon again shared a VIP box with visiting delegations that included U.S. presidential adviser Ivanka Trump and North Korean official Kim Yong Chol.

But on both occasions, the White House said that no words, nor handshakes, were exchanged between the sides.

Nonetheless, there have been reasons for optimism in South Korea’s government. On Sunday, Kim Yong Chol said in an hourlong meeting with Mr. Moon that the North was “fully willing” to talk with Washington, according to the South Korean presidential office. On Monday, over lunch with South Korean officials, Mr. Kim said that “the door to dialogue with the U.S. was open,” the office said.

The White House said Sunday that it wasn’t convinced that Mr. Kim’s remarks expressing a willingness to talk to the U.S. would be followed up with action.

In recent weeks, senior Trump administration officials have dropped hints at a willingness to pursue “talks about talks” with North Korea, even as the U.S. has announced new sanctions.

“We really need to have some discussions that precede any formal negotiations to determine whether the parties are in fact ready to engage in something meaningful,” Secretary of State

Rex Tillerson

said this month.

Some observers of the North Korean regime said that Mr. Moon’s comments may be a way to push the U.S. to ease sanctions against the North, or to pare back the spring military exercises—two of Pyongyang’s most persistent demands.

Neither side has shown any willingness to budge from their opening position. They’ve interpreted it as a sign of weakness if they do.

—Daniel Sneider, visiting scholar and lecturer in East Asian Studies at Stanford University

“Moon’s comments show that there are differences that need to be ironed out between the U.S. and North Korea before any dialogue,” said Kim Yeoul-soo, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs, a government think tank.

By calling for a lowered threshold for talks, the Moon administration may be angling for a reduction in the size of the exercises, said Mr. Sneider, of Stanford. “They’re worried that if they go ahead with the exercises, the whole process collapses,” he said.

Pyongyang warned the two allies on Monday that proceeding with the military maneuvers would go “against the climate of detente on the Korean Peninsula” and spell the end of the current thaw.

Should the U.S. and South Korea resume the joint exercises, “all the service personnel and people of the DPRK will resolutely take the toughest countermeasures to mete out a merciless punishment to the U.S.,” it said through its state media, using an abbreviation of the country’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

—Andrew Jeong contributed to this article.

Write to Jonathan Cheng at jonathan.cheng@wsj.com

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