SEOUL (AFP) – North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un proposed the “highest-level” talks with South Korea Thursday, opening the way to a historic summit as his communist country battles to fend off UN prosecution over its human rights record.
The sudden move, made during Kim’s traditional New Year message, would clear the path for the first inter-Korean leaders’ meeting since a 2007 summit in Pyongyang.
“Depending on the mood and circumstances to be created, we have no reason not to hold the highest-level talks,” Kim said in the televised speech, calling for a thaw in icy relations between the two Koreas, which remain technically at war.
Seoul welcomed the overture as “meaningful”, coming after the North’s state media had previously used sexist and personal language in attacks on South Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-Hye.
President Park has repeatedly said the door to dialogue with Pyongyang is open, but insists the North must first take tangible steps towards abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.
“Our government hopes South and North Korea will hold dialogue without further ado in the near future,” Ryoo Kihl-Jae, the South’s unification minister in charge of inter-Korean affairs, told a briefing.
Any talks should feature “practical and frank discussions on all issues of mutual concern”, he said.
Kim also urged Washington to take a “bold shift” in its policy towards Pyongyang and denounced the United States for leading an international campaign over the North’s dismal human rights record.
“The US and its followers are holding on to a nasty ‘human rights’ racket, as their schemes to destroy our self-defensive nuclear deterrent and stifle our republic by force become unrealisable,” the young leader said.
He described nuclear weapons as the guardian of his country and vowed to sternly retaliate against “any provocations” threatening its dignity.
Pyongyang faces growing pressure over its rights record, with the UN stepping up a campaign to refer the North’s leaders to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
The isolated nation, meanwhile, suffered a mysterious Internet outage last month after Washington vowed retaliation over a crippling cyber attack blamed on North Korea against Sony, the studio behind a controversial film about a fictional plot to assassinate Kim.
A US State Department official said after Kim’s speech, “We support improved inter-Korean relations.”
Kim said in his message that Pyongyang “will make every effort to advance dialogue and negotiations”, adding that the “tragic” division of the Korean peninsula should not be tolerated.
The leader’s tone was generally conciliatory, but he made it clear that South Korea should end its periodic joint military exercises with the United States.
“Needless to say, faithful dialogue is not possible in such a brutal atmosphere that war exercises targeting the other side are going on,” Kim said.