North Korea hints at openness to talks, despite still-venomous rhetoric

Lee Jin-man/AP - A South Korean protester holds a sign and flowers during a rally in Seoul on Tuesday, demanding peace on the Korean peninsula.

SEOUL — Government officials and security analysts in the region say North Korea is scaling back its campaign of threats and showing signs it wants to ease tensions with South Korea and the United States.

That assessment, gaining credence among policymakers in recent days, does not mean that North Korea will soon agree to talks or that the long-term threat posed by its weapons program has been reduced. But officials say they are encouraged by a shift over the past week in Pyongyang’s rhetoric, which, though still venomous, now includes hints about reconciliation.

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“The tensions should gradually decrease from here, but we cannot lose ourselves” to complacency, a South Korean Defense Ministry official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to convey government thinking. “We do still have to be prepared for any provocations.”

Dialogue will be difficult, because Washington and Pyongyang are fundamentally at odds over what must happen first. On Thursday, the North issued a statement laying out its conditions for talks, including the lifting of U.N. sanctions and the removal of all U.S. nuclear assets from the region. The United States, which has already rejected such steps, instead wants Pyongyang to live up to preexisting disarmament agreements.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that North Korea’s preconditions are “not acceptable,” but he appeared to welcome the glimmer of interest in talks from Pyongyang.

“I’m prepared to look at that as, you know, at least a beginning gambit,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Analysts say it’s noteworthy that Pyongyang is even raising the possibility of talks, given that in recent weeks it has pledged nuclear annihilation of the United States, South Korea, Japan and Guam. That rhetoric, coupled with the North’s renewed effort to produce weapons-grade plutonium and its temporary suspension of a joint industrial complex near the North-South border, helped push tensions on the Korean Peninsula to their highest point in two decades.

In other demands, North Korea urged the South to stop blaming it for a recent cyberattack and for the 2010 torpedoing of a South Korean ship. It also called for an end to what it called “nuclear war drills,” including U.S.-South Korean military exercises set to conclude later this month.

“Dialogue can never go with war actions,” North Korea said in its statement, released by its state-run news agency and attributed to the National Defense Commission, an important policymaking body.

A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman called the North’s demands “illogical.”

Analysts caution that it is still unclear what North Korea will do next. Foreign governments have virtually no access to the country’s top decisionmakers and are forced to assess its strategy using a mix of propaganda signal-reading and fuzzy intelligence.

One key question is whether the North will test-fire the one or two midrange missiles that are positioned for launch on its eastern coast. Defense experts in Seoul had initially thought it would do so as part of its drive to raise tensions. Nowthey see several alternative scenarios: The North could shoot the missiles off as a symbolic show of victory to its people. It could also use them as a bargaining chip for talks.

“The North can still try to put pressure on the United States by creating an unstable situation on the Korean Peninsula with military provocations if the U.S. chooses not to talk with them,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.

Over the past month, the Obama administration has changed its own strategy for dealing with North Korea’s saber-rattling. Initially, it went with high-profile deterrence, flying nuclear-capable stealth bombers over the peninsula and speeding up the deployment of a missile defense system to Guam.

More recently, it has sought to limit signs of military force. It postponed an intercontinental ballistic missile test earlier this month. When Kerry visited Seoul last week, he opted out of a meeting at U.S. military headquarters here with Gen. James D. Thurman, the commander of American forces on the peninsula. Instead, Thurman and Kerry met privately at Kerry’s hotel, a senior State Department official said.

The Obama administration wants to break the cycle of past negotiations, Kerry said Thursday.

“You reach agreement, they go back on it. You reach agreement again, you give them some food aid; there’s some sort of bait; nothing happens. It just hasn’t been serious,” he said. “And the problem with that is that now they are further down the road in terms of nuclearization, and it’s more dangerous.”

Yoonjung Seo in Seoul and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.

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