Conflict & Justice

North Korea sets tough new terms for talks with US


File photo shows a North Korean soldier during a military parade to mark 100 years since the birth of the country's founder Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012.


Pedro Ugarte

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said it would agree to regional talks with South Korea and the United States — but only if certain preconditions were met first, including lifting United Nations sanctions and an end to joint US-South Korea military exercises.

"Dialogue and war cannot coexist," the North's National Defense Commission said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency, Reuters reported.

"If the United States and the puppet South have the slightest desire to avoid the sledgehammer blow of our army and the people ... and truly wish dialogue and negotiations, they must make the resolute decision," it said.

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The North added that its rivals "should immediately stop all their provocative acts against the DPRK and apologize for all of them," according to CNN.

After weeks of escalating tension, blistering rhetoric and shows of military might on the Korean Peninsula, dialogue has become the new focus.

Still, the North's rivals are not satisfied.

"North Korea's demands are totally incomprehensible. It's absurd," South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-Young told reporters, according to Agence France-Presse.

Yet Pyangyong's demands aren't surprising for analysts in Seoul. They say the regime is mostly reiterating what it's always wanted: an end to practices by the outside world it says hinder and even threaten its existence.

First, the country wants an end to UN sanctions because it needs money — especially in the form of far more valuable foreign currency — from the outside world. Sanctions are starving key banks and the people.

Second, analysts say the country has always been frightened by war games between Seoul and Washington, fearing they could amount to rehearsals for a regime overthrow.

Joint military drills faraway in Korea may seem harmless to most Americans today. But North Koreans learn in elementary school that their cities were burned to rubble during the Korean War. Political elites feel they have reason to be paranoid, experts say, even if only as a way of preserving their rule.

However, some are hailing the North's willingness to even broach the word negotiations after weeks of belligerent behavior as a good sign.

"It's an initial show of strength in a game of tug-of-war that at least shows a desire to have a dialogue down the line," said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, according to AFP.

US Secretary of State John Kerry recently expressed a decided preference for talks with North Korea, but added that he'd have to see evidence of a shift away from nuclear weapons.

President Barack Obama had harsh words for the DPRK as well, which has proved a major source of stress for his administration in the early months of 2013.

"This is the same kind of pattern that we saw his father engage in and his grandfather before that," said Obama in a NBC News broadcast, according to CNN.

"Since I came into office, the one thing I was clear about was, we're not going to reward this kind of provocative behavior. You don't get to bang your spoon on the table and somehow you get your way," he said.

Senior Correspondent Geoffrey Cain contributed reporting from Seoul. Follow him on Twitter @geoffrey_cain.

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