N. Korea offers talks, likely trying to get sanctions relief

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said Friday her country is willing to resume talks with South Korea if conditions are met, indicating it wants Seoul to persuade Washington to relax crippling economic sanctions.

Kim Yo Jong’s statement came days after North Korea performed its first missile tests in six months, which some experts said were intended to show it will keep boosting its weapons arsenal if the U.S.-led sanctions continue while nuclear diplomacy remains stalled.

She offered the talks while mentioning South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s call, issued in a speech at the U.N. General Assembly, for a political declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War as a way to bring peace to the peninsula.

“Smiling a forced smile, reading the declaration of the termination of the war, and having photos taken could be essential for somebody, but I think that they would hold no water and would change nothing, given the existing inequality, serious contradiction therefrom and hostilities,” Kim Yo Jong said in the statement carried by state media.

She said North Korea is willing to hold “constructive” talks with South Korea to discuss how to improve and repair strained ties if the South stops provoking the North with hostile policies, far-fetched assertions and double-dealing standards.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it’s carefully reviewing Kim Yo Jong’s statement. It said South Korea will continue its efforts to restore ties with North Korea.

Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea, said North Korea is putting indirect pressure on Seoul to work to arrange talks on easing the sanctions as it pushes for the declaration of the war’s end.

“It’s like North Korea saying it would welcome talks on the end-of-the war declaration if lifting the sanctions can also be discussed,” Nam said.

The U.S.-led sanctions have been toughened following North Korea’s provocative run of nuclear and missile tests in 2016-17, and Kim Jong Un has said the sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic and natural disasters were causing the “worst-ever” crisis in North Korea.

Earlier this year, he warned he would enlarge the country’s nuclear arsenal if the United States refuses to abandon its “hostile policy” toward North Korea, an apparent reference to the sanctions.

North Korea and the United States are still technically at war because the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. North Korea has consistently wanted to sign a peace treaty with the United States to formally end the war as a step toward subsequent improved relations. Some experts say the peace treaty could allow North Korea to demand that the United States withdraw its 28,500 troops in South Korea and ease the sanctions.

Both Koreas had called for an end-of-war declaration and a peace treaty during a period of diplomacy with the United States that began in 2018. There was speculation that former President Donald Trump might announce the war’s end in early 2019 to convince Kim Jong Un to commit to denuclearization.

No such announcement was made as the talks reached a stalemate after Trump rejected Kim Jong Un’s calls for the lifting of toughened sanctions in exchange for limited denuclearization steps. Some experts say North Korea won’t have a reason to denuclearize if those sanctions are withdrawn.

Kim Yo Jong’s offer for talks was a stark contrast to a blunt statement issued by a senior North Korean diplomat earlier Friday that the end-of-war declaration could be a “smokescreen” covering up hostile U.S. policies.

The earlier statement appeared to target the U.S., while the later one by Kim Yo Jong, who is in charge of North Korea’s relations with Seoul, focuses more on South Korea. Both statements suggest Seoul and Washington should act first and drop sanctions if they want to see a resumption of nuclear diplomacy.

Ties between the Koreas remain largely deadlocked amid a stalemate in the broader North Korea-U.S. diplomacy. North Korea earlier called on South Korea not to interfere in its dealings with the United States after Seoul failed to break away from Washington and revive joint economic projects held up by the sanctions.

North Korea also often accuses South Korea of hypocrisy and double standards by buying high-tech weapons and staging military drills with the United States while calling for a dialogue with the North.

Last week, North Korea conducted its first cruise and ballistic missile tests since March, demonstrating its ability to launch attacks on South Korea and Japan, two key U.S. allies where a total of 80,000 American soldiers are stationed. But North Korea is still maintaining a moratorium on nuclear tests and launches of long-range missiles that directly target the American homeland, a sign that it wants to keep chances for future diplomacy with Washington alive.

“North Korea would think it doesn’t cross a (red line) set by the U.S. … so it says it can come to talks if conditions are rife” for sanctions relief, said Seo Yu-Seok at the Seoul-based Institute of North Korean Studies.

Nam said North Korea is likely to conduct more powerful weapons tests if the U.S. and South Korea don’t accept its demand for sanctions relief.