SEOUL — North Korea on Sunday proposed wide-ranging “senior-level” talks with the United States, an offer it said Washington should accept without setting any “preconditions” about denuclearization.
The North’s proposal marked the latest attempt at reconciliation for a family-run police state that spent much of March and April making threats. In a statement issued by its state-run news agency and attributed to the National Defense Commission, a top policy body, North Korea said the talks should be used to defuse “military tensions,” draft a peace treaty for the peninsula, and discuss mutual denuclearization.
But analysts say an agreement for dialogue will be difficult because Pyongyang and Washington have fundamentally different views on what must happen before the sides sit down. The U.S. has made its own standing offer to the North for dialogue — but only if Pyongyang’s leadership first shows interest in giving up its small stockpile of nuclear weapons.
In its statement Sunday, the North said its weapons program would “go on and on without vacillation” unless the entire peninsula is denuclearized — meaning the U.S. removes all nuclear assets from the area. The North also called on the U.S. to drop all sanctions against it.
The State Department had no immediate reaction to the North’s offer. But on Friday, Glyn Davies, the U.S. envoy for North Korea policy, said Washington will never accept the North as a nuclear-armed state.
“The North Koreans know darn well this offer is unacceptable,” said Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based North Korea expert at the International Crisis Group. “It’s so self-serving. When the Americans reject it, they’ll be able to say, ‘Look how hostile the world is; they won’t even recognize us as a sovereign state. So of course we have to have our nuclear deterrent.’”
Some analysts say this proposal could also be North Korea aiming to appease China, whose leaders have urged Pyongyang to rejoin international talks.
Pyongyang’s offer comes just days after planned talks with South Korea fell apart, scuttled because the two sides couldn’t agree on the rank of the negotiators who would represent them.
As it had offered South Korea, Pyongyang said the U.S. “can set the venue and date of the talks to its convenience.”
Within the region, the North maintains close diplomatic contact only with China. Policymakers in other Asian capitals, as well as in Washington, are still searching for a palatable way to deal with Kim Jong Un, the young supreme leader who inherited power of the North 18 months ago.
During that time, the North has tested an underground nuclear weapon, launched two long-range missiles and cut nearly all ties with the South. Some analysts in Seoul and Washington think engagement will help calm the North’s behavior. But they also worry the North could exploit any possible talks, making denuclearization agreements to win food or energy aid, then ignoring those agreements soon after.
The U.S. last held senior-level dialogue with the North in February 2012, talks that led to apparent breakthrough deal in which the North would cease weapons tests and freeze key aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for 240,000 metric tons of food aid. The deal soon fell apart, though, when the North said it would conduct a satellite launch - what the U.S. and others called a de facto intercontinental ballistic missile test.
Over the last two decades, the U.S. and North Korea have made several attempts to strike a grand bargain, one in which the nations normalize relations and work out a peace treaty. But such efforts have broken down over disputes about the North’s weapons program.
The Korean War ended 60 years because of an armistice deal, not a peace treaty.