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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 267 (June 20, 2013)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N. Korea Proposes Talks with U.S. to Discuss Military Tension, Peace Treaty

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Following the aborted inter-Korean talks, North Korea proposed high-level talks with the United States on June 16 to defuse military tensions, and discuss a peace treaty and the U.S. campaign for a nuclear-free world.

   The National Defense Commission (NDC), the North's top decision-making body chaired by leader Kim Jong-un, issued a statement by an unidentified spokesman proposing "high-level, government-to-government talks" with the United States, five days after they called off an official dialogue with South Korea.

   "In order to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and realize regional peace and security, we propose high-level governmental talks between the DPRK (North Korea) and the United States," according to a statement released by the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the communist country's official news outlet.

   The talks' agenda could include the issue of easing military tensions on the peninsula, replacing the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War with a permanent peace treaty, and the U.S. vision for a world free of nuclear weapons, among other issues of mutual interest, the spokesman said.

   Pyongyang's overture comes five days after South and North Korea canceled their high-level talks that were planned for June 12-13, citing differences over the rank of chief delegates to represent each side. The canceled talks would have been the first high-level talks between the Koreas in six years.

   "If (the U.S.) is truly interested in easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and securing peace and security in the region, including the U.S. mainland, it should not speak about holding talks or making contact on the basis of pre-conditions," the commission's spokesman said. The time and the venue for the talks can be arranged by Washington at its own convenience, the statement said.

   Washington has repeatedly stressed that it is not interested in holding talks for the sake of talks, urging Pyongyang to first demonstrate through action that it is serious about dismantling its nuclear weapons programs. The socialist nation claims its nuclear programs are aimed at defending itself from what it calls hostile U.S. intentions.

   In the NDC statement, however, it called a denuclearization of the peninsula a "precept" of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung and former leader Kim Jong-il, the two late autocrats and the incumbent ruler's grandfather and father.

   "We make clear once again that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is an unchanging will and determination of our armed forces and people," the spokesman said. "Our denuclearization is the denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula, including South Korea, and the most thorough denuclearization aimed at completely ending the United States' nuclear threats against us."

   In the statement, North Korea argued the fundamental reason why they possess their nuclear weapons program was for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

   The spokesman noted that denuclearization does not simply refer to the dismantlement of the North's nuclear weapons programs, apparently referring to Pyongyang's long-held stance that the U.S. should also give up its nuclear weapons.

   "The U.S. can decide on the meeting's venue and time at its own convenience," the spokesman said. "All developments depend on the responsible choice of the United States, which has worsened the situation on the Korean Peninsula until now."

   North Korea has ratcheted up military tensions with South Korea over the past months with its third ever underground nuclear test in February and the long-range ballistic rocket launch in December 2012, both of which prompted a new round of sanctions against the regime.

   The inter-Korean relations also deteriorated when Pyongyang abruptly pulled out its workers from a jointly run factory park in its territory, leading to a suspension of operations in May.

   On June 6, North Korea suddenly showed a conciliatory gesture to Seoul by proposing high-level official talks. But it soon walked away from the talks as it couldn't reach an agreement in choosing their chief delegates with Seoul.

   The last high-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang took place in Beijing in February 2012 when North Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan and Glyn Davies, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, met to reach the so-called Leap Day deal.

   The deal, under which Pyongyang agreed to put a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in return for 240,000 tons of nutritional assistance, was breached after the North fired a long-range rocket less than two months later ― an incident that deepened mutual distrust. Washington and the international community saw the rocket launch as a disguised attempt to test its ballistic missiles for military purposes.

   North Korea's surprise offer of dialogue with the U.S. was met with a frosty reaction by Seoul and Washington, which both have called on Pyongyang to prove sincerity with its actions before resuming talks.

   President Park Geun-hye on June 17 expressed her misgivings about the North's intention during her telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama. "Having talks for the sake of talks only earns North Korea time to make its nuclear weapons more sophisticated," Park was quoted by her spokesperson Kim Haing as telling Obama during the 20-minute call.

   Obama briefed Park on the outcome of his recent summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Obama told Park that Xi expressed China's commitment to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and promised not to recognize Pyongyang as a nuclear weapons state, according to the spokesperson. Obama telephoned Park from Air Force 1 on his way to Northern Ireland to attend the G-8 summit. North Korea's nuclear program is an item on the agenda of the summit, along with other global security issues.

   Seoul's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said he sees "little possibility" for talks between the North and the U.S. While reaffirming no change in the delegates, he reiterated calls for dialogue with the communist neighbor to normalize the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

   Washington also responded by expressing its openness to dialogue but said that Pyongyang must fulfill its international obligations such as U.N. Security Council resolutions banning its atomic activity.

   "As we have made clear, our desire is to have credible negotiations with the North Koreans, but those talks must involve North Korea living up to its obligations to the world, including compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions, and ultimately result in denuclearization," National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.

   Denis McDonough, President Obama's chief of staff, echoed the view, urging action before sugarcoated promises. "The bottom line is they're not going to be able to talk their way out of the very significant sanctions they're under now ― sanctions that Russia supported and, very importantly, that China supported," he told CBS on June 16.

   Experts said the North appeared to be using its typical tactic once again of seeking direct talks with the U.S. while sidelining the South, which they said would no longer work given the current strength of the alliance.

   "As Seoul is seriously preparing for the upcoming summit with Xi Jinping, Pyongyang might fear they could be further isolated. With the criticism that it was the South that broke the inter-Korean talks last week, it appears to be sidelining Seoul," said Hong Hyun-ik, a research fellow at the think tank Sejong Institute. "By proposing talks, the North could also support China, which has sought to resume the multilateral talks on its denuclearization and show to its ally that it is fulfilling the promise to pursue dialogue."

   Glyn Davies said Washington would come to the negotiation table with Pyongyang only if the regime returns to its 2005 denuclearization agreement. "First and foremost, the United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state," Davies said on June 14 at a forum held in Washington by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

   "We will not reward the DPRK for the absence of bad behavior. We've long made clear that we are open to improved relations with the DPRK if it is willing to take concrete actions to live up to its international obligations and commitments," he said. "Ultimately, we will judge the DPRK not by its words but by its actions, the concrete actions it takes to address the core concerns of the international community, ranging from human rights to nuclear proliferation."

   The U.S. sees no difference between North Korea's latest offer of bilateral talks and its previous ones because they lack a serious intent to denuclearize, the State Department said. It emphasized that the international community has been very consistent and clear that Pyongyang should verifiably end its nuclear program and engage in "authentic and credible negotiations that produce concrete denuclearizataion actions."

   U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on June 17 that talks would be possible only after the North takes "credible steps toward concrete denuclearization." Psaki said Washington remains open to bilateral talks with Pyongyang only in the context of the six-way nuclear negotiations involving South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. Her remarks were understood to assure South Korea and Japan that the U.S. will deal with North Korea in close coordination with its allies.

   Observers also noted Pyongyang, which proclaimed itself as a nuclear-armed state in its constitution last year, contradicted itself by putting the issue of a nuclear-free world on the agenda. Earlier this year, the North also adopted a policy of concurrently pursuing economic development and nuclear armament.

   The North's intention behind the apparent shift in tactics remains unclear but should reflect Beijing's increasing pressure, Pyongyang's own need for economic assistance and its strategic calculations given the forthcoming South Korea-China summit, officials and analysts say.

   Kim Kye-gwan, North Korea's vice foreign minister and chief nuclear envoy, held a "strategic dialogue" with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui on June 19 in Beijing. Kim reasserted that Pyongyang wants to resolve its nuclear issue through dialogue, China's foreign ministry said after meetings with the envoy.

   The North Korean envoy said Pyongyang wants a peaceful resolution to the nuclear row through participation in various talks, including the six-nation forum, according to the ministry's website. Kim was in Beijing from June 18, meeting with senior Chinese officials for "strategic dialogue" that watchers say likely focused on the North's nuclear weapons program and bilateral ties.

   Zhang Yesui, China's vice foreign minister, said Korea's denuclearization, peaceful and stabilized Korean Peninsula are all in the interest of related parties and that China wants early resumption of the six-party talks, the ministry said.

   Late last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sent Choe Ryong-hae, the director of the General Political Bureau of the (North) Korean People's Army, to China where he expressed the regime's willingness to engage in dialogue.

   "Since May, the North has been highlighting its efforts to overcome economic difficulties through the leadership's public events and by drumming up the people's participation and adopting economic legislation at home," the unification ministry in Seoul said in its analysis released on June 17. "Outside, with Choe's trip to Beijing being as a momentum, it has been seeking a turnaround in the situation from a tactical aspect."

   Some South Korean analysts suspect Kim Kye-gwan may head to Russia after Beijing. South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Cho Tai-young told reporters at a press briefing, "There has been no official confirmation from Russia" regarding Vice Minister Kim visiting.

   Russia sees North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's offering of talks with the U.S. as a step toward resuming the long-stalled six-party talks. Alexander Lukashevich, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters in Moscow on June 17 that the latest movement "may be a new dynamic that could help to unfreeze the six-party talks process." Lukashevich added that the gestures from North Korea "signal that conditions are ripening for delayed dialogues to move forward."

   The bilateral meeting between the vice ministers of China and North Korea coincided with a gathering of six-party talks envoys from the U.S., Japan and South Korea on June 19 in Washington.

   Asked by a reporter whether the trilateral talks are an extension of the dialogue thus far or a response to North Korea's recent proposals to talk with South Korea and the U.S., South Korea's Cho Tae-yong, the new special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, said, "Both, I think."

   Cho will meet his U.S. and Japanese counterparts, Davies and Shinsuke Sugiyama, in Washington, D.C. for the first time since he took his post. Cho is expected to stop in Beijing on June 21 before returning to Seoul, according to South Korean Foreign Ministry officials. President Park will hold her first summit next week with Xi.