North Korea open to talks with South, but under conditions

Comments by the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un likely aimed at easing US sanctions, experts say.

Kim Yo Jong’s statement came days after North Korea performed its first missile tests in six months [File: Leah Millis/Reuters]

The influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said her country is willing to resume talks with South Korea if conditions are met and the South drops its “hostile” stance, indicating it wants Seoul to persuade Washington to relax crippling economic sanctions.

Kim Yo Jong’s statement on Friday came days after North Korea performed its first missile tests in six months, which some experts said were intended to show it would keep boosting its arsenal if the US-led sanctions stayed while nuclear diplomacy remains dormant.

She offered the talks while dismissing South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s call, issued in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly, for a political declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War as a way to bring peace to the peninsula.

“Smiling a forced smile, reading the declaration of the termination of the war, and having photos taken could be essential for somebody, but I think that they would hold no water and would change nothing, given the existing inequality, serious contradiction therefrom and hostilities,” Kim Yo Jong said in the statement carried by state media.

“Under such a situation it does not make any sense to declare the end of the war with all the things, which may become a seed of a war between parties that have been at odds for more than half a century, left intact,” Kim said.

She said North Korea is willing to restore “constructive” talks with South Korea to discuss how to improve and repair strained ties under certain conditions.

“What needs to be dropped is the double-dealing attitudes, illogical prejudice, bad habits and hostile stand of justifying their own acts while faulting our just exercise of the right to self-defence,” she said.

“Only when such a precondition is met, would it be possible to sit face to face and declare the significant termination of war and discuss the issue of the north-south relations and the future of the Korean peninsula.”

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it is carefully reviewing Kim Yo Jong’s statement. A ministry statement said South Korea will continue its efforts to restore ties with North Korea.

Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Seoul, said it was potentially a significant gesture by North Korea.

“It is potentially quite important, given that it does come from Kim Yo-Jong who tends to be one of the more critical, uncompromising voices of the North Korean leadership when it comes to dealings with South Korea and also the United States,” he said.

“It’s certainly a very different picture to what we were looking at just over a week ago when on the same day, within the space of a few hours, the militaries of the two Koreas were test-firing new types of missiles. So it does seem to be an improvement on that at least.”

South Korea says it conducted its first underwater-launched ballistic missile test on September 15, hours after North Korea fired two missiles.

Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea, told The Associated Press news agency that Kim Yo Jong’s comments on Friday were putting indirect pressure on Seoul over talks on easing the sanctions.

“It’s like North Korea saying it would welcome talks on the end-of-the war declaration if lifting the sanctions can also be discussed,” Nam said.

‘Worst-ever’ crisis

The US-led sanctions have been toughened following the North’s provocative run of nuclear and missile tests in 2016-17, and Kim Jong Un has said the sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic and natural disasters were causing the “worst-ever” crisis in North Korea.

North Korea and the US are still technically at war because the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. North Korea has consistently wanted to sign a peace treaty with the US to formally end the war and for subsequent improved relations. Some experts say the peace treaty could allow North Korea to demand the US to withdraw its 28,500 soldiers in South Korea and ease sanctions.

Both Koreas had called for an end-of-war declaration to be made and a peace treaty to be signed during the period of diplomacy with the US that began in 2018, and there was speculation then-President Donald Trump might announce the war’s end in early 2019 to convince Kim Jong Un to commit to denuclearisation.

No such announcement was made as the diplomacy faded to a deadlock after Trump rejected Kim Jong Un’s calls for lifting the newer, toughened sanctions in return for a limited denuclearisation step. Some experts say North Korea will not find a reason to denuclearise after having those sanctions withdrawn.

Kim Yo Jong’s offer for talks was a stark contrast to a blunt statement by a senior North Korean diplomat issued earlier on Friday that the end-of-war declaration could be a “smokescreen” covering up hostile US policies — usually a reference to the sanctions as well as the US military presence in the South.

Last week, North Korea conducted its first cruise and ballistic missile tests since March, demonstrating its ability to launch attacks on South Korea and Japan, two key US allies where a total of 80,000 American soldiers are stationed.

But North Korea still maintains its moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests directly targeting the American homeland, a sign that it wants to keep chances for future diplomacy with Washington alive.

“North Korea would think it doesn’t cross a [red line] set by the US … so it says it can come to talks if conditions are rife” for sanctions relief, Seo Yu-Seok at the Seoul-based Institute of North Korean Studies, told the AP.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies