By Choe Sang-Hun
Jan. 10, Seoul, South Korea — North Korea said Saturday that it had told the United States that it would impose a temporary moratorium on nuclear tests if Washington canceled its joint annual military exercises with South Korea to help promote dialogue on the divided Korean Peninsula.
The North proposed its “crucial step” in a message it delivered to the United States on Friday through an unspecified channel, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said. In the past, North Korea has relayed messages to Washington through its United Nations mission in New York.
Until now, the United States has dismissed North Korea’s routine demand for an end to its joint military exercises with South Korea. The North has called them a rehearsal for an invasion while the United States and South Korea have insisted that their annual war games are defensive in nature.
But the North’s latest proposal included a new incentive for Washington, offering to temporarily suspend nuclear tests in return for a suspension of the joint military exercises this year.
The North’s overture followed the New Year’s Day speech of its leader, Kim Jong-un, in which he said he was ready to meet with President Park Geun-hye of South Korea if “the mood was right.” Mr. Kim said the two Koreas should mark their 70th anniversary of liberation from Japanese colonial rule this year with great strides toward inter-Korean reconciliation. North Korea has since significantly toned down its habitually harsh language when referring to South Korea.
The message proposed that the United States “contribute to easing tension on the Korean Peninsula by temporarily suspending joint military exercises in South Korea and its vicinity this year, and said that in this case the D.P.R.K. is ready to take such responsive step as temporarily suspending the nuclear test over which the U.S. is concerned,” the North Korean news agency said Saturday. D.P.R.K. stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name.
The United States on Saturday rebuffed the North Korean proposal. Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said it “inappropriately” linked the “routine” joint military drills “to the possibility of a nuclear test.”
The South Korean government has proposed a dialogue with North Korea to discuss tension-reducing steps, such as reunions of Korean families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War, as well as a possible North-South summit meeting. The North has not responded to the South Korean proposal yet.
North Korea’s overture to Washington came amid tensions between the two governments over a Sony Pictures movie that involved a fictional C.I.A. plot to assassinate Mr. Kim. Washington accused the North of hacking the computer network of the Hollywood studio and imposed new sanctions last month. The North, which denied involvement, has vowed to retaliate.
North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests — in 2006, 2009 and 2013 — prompting a series of United Nations sanctions. A recently published South Korean Defense Ministry analysis said the North had made significant advances toward making its nuclear weapons small enough to fit onto a long-range missile capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States. Experts said the North needed more tests to demonstrate such capabilities.
The United States keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea under a mutual defense treaty, a legacy of the Korean War, when it fought on the South’s side.
On Saturday, North Korea said “there can be neither trust-based dialogue nor détente and stability on the peninsula in such a gruesome atmosphere in which war drills are staged against the dialogue partner.”
The North added that it was ready to discuss its proposal with the United States.Φ
Choe Sang-Hun is a Pulitzer Prize-winning South Korean journalist. Choe was born in Ulju-gun, Ulsan in southern South Korea. He received a B.A. in Economics from Yeungnam University and a masters degree in interpretation and translation from the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.