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 by a family-run police state that spent much of March and April making threats. In a statement issued by its official 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 United States maintains a standing offer for dialogue with the North — 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 United States removes all nuclear assets from the area. Pyongyang also called on Washington to drop all sanctions against it.
In an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said the North would be judged on its actions — including denuclearization — not its “nice words.” Although the United States would prefer talks, he said, “those talks have to be real. They have to be based on them living up to their obligations.”
“The North Koreans know darn well this offer is unacceptable,” said Daniel 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 with South Korea, Pyongyang said the United States “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 searching for a palatable way to deal with Kim Jong Un, the North’s young supreme leader who inherited power 18 months ago.
Since then, 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 would help calm the North’s behavior. But they also worry that the North could exploit any possible talks, agreeing to take steps toward denuclearization to win food or energy aid, then ignoring those agreements.
The United States last held senior-level dialogue with the North in February 2012, talks that led to an 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 United States and others called a de facto intercontinental ballistic missile test.
Over the past two decades, the United States 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 Pyongyang’s weapons program.
The Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice deal, not a peace treaty.