North Korea has demanded the withdrawal of UN sanctions and the end of US-South Korea military drills as conditions for resuming talks with Seoul and Washington.
The list of pre-conditions outlined on Thursday, which came from the North’s top military body, insisted on a general apology for all “provocative acts” taken against North Korea.
The North’s statement said: “Dialogue can never go with war actions.”
The conditions will likely be rejected by South Korea and the US, which have themselves made any talks conditional on the North taking steps towards denuclearisation.
Dialogue has become the new focus of a blistering rhetorical battle that has sent military tensions soaring on the Korean peninsula ever since the North carried out its third nuclear test in February.
Some analysts see the North’s engagement in a debate over dialogue as a welcome shift from the apocalyptic threats of nuclear war that have poured out of Pyongyang in recent weeks.
“I don’t think Pyongyang really expects these conditions to be met,” said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“It’s an initial show of strength in a game of tug-of-war that at least shows a desire to have a dialogue down the line,”Yang said.
‘Cooked up’ sanctions
The first step demanded by the North’s National Military Commission was the withdrawal of “cooked up” UN sanctions that were imposed after the nuclear test in February.
North Korea has repeatedly cited the sanctions as a prime trigger for the current crisis.
The other main bone of contention has been ongoing joint South Korea-US military drills, which have involved the deployment of nuclear-capable B-52s and B-2 stealth bombers.
Both countries must provide international guarantees that such “nuclear war drills” will never be repeated, the commission said.
Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert with the International Crisis Group, ruled out any suggestion that the North was softening its position and said those hoping a dialogue might emerge were being wilfully naive.
South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-Hye, has made tentative and conditional offers of talks, which received the backing of US Secretary of State John Kerry during his recent Northeast Asia tour.
Both Park and Kerry stressed that any talks would have to be substantive and predicated on signals from North Korea that it “change its ways” and respect its international obligations, especially with its nuclear programme.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged Pyongyang on Wednesday to “seriously” consider Seoul’s offer.
The commission statement came just hours after the North’s main body for inter-Korean relations ruled out any immediate return to the negotiating table.
The South’s dialogue offer is a “deceptive artifice” designed to appease public opinion and to hide its responsibility for pushing the peninsula “to a state of war”, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said.
Neither statement made any mention of a possible medium-range missile test, the expectation of which has kept South Korean and US forces on heightened alert for the past week.
Intelligence reports suggest the North has two Musudan missiles primed to fire from its east coast, and most observers had predicted a launch on or around April 15, the birthday of the North’s late founder Kim Il-Sung.
The Musudan, which has never been tested, has an estimated range of up to 4,000 km.
That would cover any target in South Korea and Japan, and possibly even US military bases on the Pacific island of Guam.