PYONGYANG – North Korea’s top governing body on Sunday proposed high-level nuclear and security talks with the United States in an appeal sent just days after calling off talks with South Korea.
The National Defense Commission headed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un issued a statement through state media proposing “senior-level” discussions to ease tensions and discuss a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-1953 Korean War.
The rare proposal for talks between the rival Koreas follows months of acrimony over the North’s defiant launch of a long-range rocket in December and a nuclear test in February, provocative acts that drew tightened U.N. and U.S. sanctions. Washington and Seoul countered the moves by stepping up annual springtime military exercises that prompted Pyongyang to warn of a “nuclear war” on the Korean Peninsula.
However, as tensions began to subside in May, Pyongyang has made tentative overtures to re-establish dialogue with South Korea and the United States. Foreign analysts say the impoverished North often expresses interest in talks after raising tensions with provocative behavior to win outside concessions.
There was no immediate response from Washington, but President Barack Obama’s point man on North Korea said Friday that while the U.S. is not averse to talking with Pyongyang, the bar for resuming engagement is higher in the wake of its repeated threats and provocations.
A recent proposal from North Korea for Cabinet-level talks with the South — the first in six years — led to plans for two days of meetings in Seoul last week, but the envisaged meeting fell apart Tuesday over who would lead the two delegations.
North Korea fought against U.S.-led United Nations and South Korean troops during the Korean War, and Pyongyang does not have diplomatic relations with either government. The Korean Peninsula remains divided by a heavily fortified border.
Reunifying the peninsula was a major goal of the North’s two late leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and is a legacy inherited by its current young leader. Pyongyang is expected to draw attention to the two Koreas’ division in the weeks leading up to the 60th anniversary in July marking the close of the Korean conflict, which ended in an armistice. A peace treaty has never been signed to formally end the war.
The top U.S. worry is North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang is estimated to have a handful of crude nuclear devices and has been working toward building a bomb it can mount on a missile capable of striking the United States.
Washington has been burned in the past by efforts to reach out to Pyongyang. Months of behind-the-scenes negotiations yielded a significant food-for-disarmament deal in February 2012, but that was scuttled by a failed North Korean long-range rocket launch just weeks later.
The North’s bid to reach out to the U.S. comes as South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, is to sit down for talks with new Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing later this month. Park, whose North Korea policy calls for building trust while remaining firm on any provocations, has been active in reaching out to Beijing. Xi, meanwhile, met with Obama in California recently.
China crucially supplied North Korea with troops during the Korean War, and has remained a key ally and benefactor since then. But it has pushed Pyongyang to return to disarmament talks.
“The fact that North Korea proposed talks (with the U.S.) ahead of the South Korea-China summit signifies its intent to keep China in check,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.
Pyongyang is also sending a message to Seoul warning that if it does not actively try to improve relations, Kim’s regime will directly approach the United States, sidelining South Korea, he said.