(ATTN: UPDATES with additional remarks from Moon, more information in last 9 paras; ADDS photo)
By Byun Duk-kun
MANILA, Nov. 14 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the international community may begin discussions on possible rewards for North Korea if the reclusive state decides to at least freeze its nuclear program and come to the denuclearization dialogue, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Tuesday.
"I believe it will not be easy realistically to move on to complete dismantlement of North Korean nukes in the near future, considering recent advances in North Korea's nuclear and missile programs," the president said at a press conference.
"That means it will likely be North Korea first freezing its nuclear program and then moving onto complete dismantlement, and if that happens, I believe we and the international community may discuss what we can do in return," he added.
The South Korean president was attending a regional forum hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Manila. He arrived here Sunday following trips to Indonesia and Vietnam.
The South Korean leader refused to answer when asked whether his country and the United States may consider halting their joint military exercises in South Korea, which have long been accused by Pyongyang as being aimed at attacking and toppling the communist regime.
Still, Moon said anything could be discussed if the North comes to the dialogue table.
"Once we enter the dialogue phase, we may be able to discuss while leaving all possibilities open," he said.
Moon, however, insisted now was still time to focus on keeping maximum pressure and sanctions against the impoverished North.
"I believe now is time to focus on ways to bring North Korea to the path of dialogue, in other words putting pressure and sanctions against North Korea," he told the press conference.
President Moon noted the upcoming Winter Olympic Games to be held in South Korea early next year may provide a chance for the North to emerge from its long isolation.
"Should North Korea take part, I believe the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games will go beyond being a simple Olympic event to provide a great chance to contribute to peace between the South and North Korea and to peace in the entire Northeast Asian region," he said.
Pyongyang remains silent despite repeated invitations from the South Korean president to take part in the Olympic Games to be held Feb. 9-25.
Moon says he remained neither optimistic nor pessimistic, noting the North has often made such decisions at the last minute.
"Even if North Korea does not take part, the 2020 Summer Olympic Games will be held in Tokyo and the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing following the PyeongChang Olympics next year. A series of three Olympic events will be held in Asia and the Pyeongchang Olympics will be the first of them," he said.
"I believe the three Olympic events will be a good chance for the political leaders of Northeast Asian countries to address various issues such as peace, economic bloc and co-prosperity."
The South Korean president is currently on an eight-day trip to Southeast Asia that also included his participation in the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Economic Leaders' Meeting in Danang, Vietnam, as well as a number of bilateral talks with other global leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang.
Moon insisted his summit with Xi, held on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Danang, marked a fresh start in the countries' bilateral relations.
Seoul-Beijing relations have been at their lowest ebb amid China's protest against the deployment of the THAAD U.S. missile defense system in South Korea.
The South Korean leader noted the THAAD issue may not have completely gone away, but insisted the countries have clearly left it behind.
"It means we have reached an agreement to put the THAAD issue behind and normalize the countries' relationship and continue developing it," he told reporters.
The countries earlier issued a joint statement vowing to put their ties back on the normal track.
Highlighting the apparent end of the months-long dispute, Moon has agreed to visit China next month for what will be his third bilateral summit with the Chinese leader since taking office in May.
"I believe the THAAD issue will not be an agenda item when I visit China next month, and that we may be able to discuss ways to more vigorously develop the countries' relationship," he said.
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