North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un proposed the “highest-level” talks with South Korea Thursday, opening the way to a historic summit as his communist country battles to fend off UN prosecution over its human rights record.
The sudden move, made during Kim’s traditional New Year message, would clear the path for the first inter-Korean leaders’ 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 in the televised speech, calling for a thaw in icy relations between the two Koreas, which remain technically at war.
Seoul welcomed the overture as “meaningful”, coming after the North’s state media had previously used sexist and personal language in attacks on South Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-Hye.
President 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.
“Our government hopes South and North Korea will hold dialogue without further ado in the near future,” Ryoo Kihl-Jae, the South’s unification minister in charge of inter-Korean affairs, told a briefing.
Any talks should feature “practical and frank discussions on all issues of mutual concern”, he said.
Kim also urged Washington to take a “bold shift” in its policy towards Pyongyang and denounced the United States for leading an international campaign over the North’s dismal 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,” the young leader said.
– ‘Make every effort’ –
He described nuclear weapons as the guardian of his country and vowed to sternly retaliate against “any provocations” threatening its dignity.
Pyongyang faces growing pressure over its 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.
A US State Department official said after Kim’s speech: â€Ž”We support improved inter-Korean relations.â€Ž”
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 periodic 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 high-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, but was followed by minor military clashes along the border that renewed tensions and talks never materialised.
Analysts said Kim was extending an olive branch after realising that Pyongyang could not end its isolation without first 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.
His father and late leader Kim Jong-Il, who died in December 2011, 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.
His son, however, also used his message Thursday to urge North Koreans to work harder in strengthening the country’s military capabilities through the development of “powerful advanced” weapons.
Under the younger Kim’s leadership, North Korea has placed a satellite in orbit and conducted its third — and most powerful — nuclear test.