North Korea's Kim says open to 'highest-level' talks with South
SEOUL - Agence France-Presse
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers a New Year's address in this January 1, 2015 photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang. REUTERS/KCNA PhotoNorth Korean leader Kim Jong-Un proposed the "highest-level" talks with South Korea Jan. 1, opening the way to a historic summit as his communist country battles to fend off international prosecution over its dismal human rights record.
The sudden move, made during his traditional New Year message, would clear the path for the first top-level inter-Korean meeting since a 2007 summit in Pyongyang.
"Depending on the mood and circumstances to be created, we have no reason not to hold the highest-level talks," Kim said, calling for a turnaround in icy relations between the two Koreas, which are technically at war.
South Korean media said he was referring to a summit with President Park Geun-Hye.
Kim also urged Washington to take a "bold shift" in its policy towards Pyongyang and denounced the US for leading an international campaign over the North's human rights record.
"The US and its followers are holding on to a nasty 'human rights' racket as their schemes to destroy our self-defensive nuclear deterrent and stifle our republic by force become unrealisable," he said.
He described nuclear weapons, meanwhile, as the guardian of his country and vowed to sternly retaliate against "any provocations" threatening its dignity.
Pyongyang faces growing pressure to improve its dismal human rights record, with the UN stepping up a campaign to refer the North's leaders to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
The isolated nation, meanwhile, suffered a mysterious Internet outage last month after Washington vowed retaliation over a crippling cyber attack blamed on North Korea against Sony, the studio behind a controversial film about a fictional plot to assassinate Kim.
The South's unification ministry in charge of inter-Korean affairs welcomed Kim's overture and urged the North to quickly accept its proposal for high-level talks this month.
"Our government wants North Korea to respond quickly to our proposal for dialogue if it is truly willing to improve relations through dialogue," it said in a statement.
A US State Department official, meanwhile, said: "We support improved inter-Korean relations."
Kim said in his message that Pyongyang "will make every effort to advance dialogue and negotiations", adding that the "tragic" division of the Korean peninsula should not be tolerated.
The leader's tone was generally conciliatory, but he made it clear that South Korea should end its joint military exercises with the United States.
"Needless to say, faithful dialogue is not possible in such a brutal atmosphere that war exercises targeting the other side are going on," Kim said.
The last round of top-level negotiations was held in February and resulted in the North hosting a rare union of relatives separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
The two Koreas agreed to restart dialogue when a top-ranking North Korean delegation made a surprise visit to the Asian Games held in the South in October.
The trip raised hopes of a thaw in relations between the neighbours, but was followed by minor military clashes along the border that renewed tensions and talks never materialised.
Park has repeatedly said the door to dialogue with Pyongyang is open, but insists the North must first take tangible steps towards abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.
Analysts said Kim was extending an olive branch after realising that Pyongyang could not end its isolation without improving ties with Seoul.
"North Korea opted for a practical line after facing up to reality, because it is now difficult to improve ties with the United States and other countries," Yoo Ho-Yeol, a Korea University professor, said.
Kim's New Year message, which sets the direction of policy for the coming year, also focused on improving living standards in North Korea, which suffers chronic food shortages.
When his father and late leader, Kim Jong-Il, died in December 2011, he left a country in dire economic straits, the result of a "military first" policy that fed ambitious missile and nuclear programmes at the expense of a malnourished population.
Kim, however, also urged North Koreans to work harder in strengthening the country's military capabilities through the development of "powerful advanced" weapons.
Under his leadership, North Korea has placed a satellite in orbit and conducted its third -- and most powerful -- nuclear test.