North Korea Seeks Talks with US to Ease Tensions

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei - North Korea's top diplomat said Tuesday that the U.S. must "unconditionally" accept its offer for dialogue if it wants to ease tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula, saying that hostile policies by Washington against his country make war a possibility.

North Korea surprisingly offered to talk with the U.S. and rejoin long-stalled international nuclear disarmament talks last month after weeks of tension following its February nuclear test. The country also recently eased its warlike rhetoric, but has still vowed to bolster its nuclear arsenal, citing what it calls U.S. military threats. U.S. officials have coolly responded to North Korea's overtures, saying Pyongyang must first demonstrate its sincerity on nuclear disarmament with concrete actions.

The North's nuclear weapons program was a key topic at the 27-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, held Tuesday in Brunei, joining other hot-button regional issues such as South China Sea territorial disputes. Asia's largest security forum includes the U.S., North Korea and the four other countries involved in six-nation nuclear talks on ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions in return for aid.

During the conference, North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun appealed again for direct talks with the U.S.

"The U.S. must unconditionally accede to ... our goodwill gesture if it is truly interested in ending the vicious circle of intensifying tension on the Korean Peninsula and safeguarding peace and stability," Pak said, according to North Korean delegation official Choe Myong Nam.

Pak said that "a touch-and-go situation in which a war can break out anytime is fostered" on the Korean Peninsula, and that U.S. hostility against the North was primarily responsible for that, Choe told reporters. Pak said the U.S. must normalize relations with North Korea and lift sanctions against the country, saying the North Korean nuclear standoff won't be resolved unless the U.S. changes its tone, according to Choe.

It's unlikely the U.S. would accept North Korea's dialogue offer anytime soon. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry stepped up pressure on the North to abandon its atomic ambitions, saying key regional powers, including North Korean ally China, are all "absolutely united" in demanding nuclear disarmament.

After meeting with his counterparts from China, South Korea and Japan, Kerry told reporters that "I want to emphasize ... all four of us are absolutely united and absolutely firm in our insistence that the future with respect to North Korea must include denuclearization."

"China made clear to me they have made very firm statements and very firm steps that they have taken with respect to the implementation of that policy," Kerry said.

China, North Korea's longtime ally and main aid provider, was angered by the North's ramping up of tensions and has since supported tightening U.N. sanctions and cracked down on North Korean banking activity.

The nuclear disarmament talks -which involve the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia - have been stalled since North Korea quit the negotiations in 2009 to protest international condemnation over a rocket launch.

Since the ASEAN security forum includes all six countries involved in the talks, it has previously provided a chance to use informal discussions to break stalemates over the nuclear standoff. In 2011, top nuclear envoys from the two Koreas met on the sidelines of the forum in Bali, Indonesia, and agreed to work toward a resumption of the six-nation talks.

But there have been no reports that North Korea had similar talks with the U.S. or South Korea in Brunei. U.S. and South Korean officials have said they have no plans to meet privately with North Korea.

The Korean Peninsula officially remains in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The U.S. keeps 28,500 troops in South Korea as deterrence against potential aggression from North Korea.

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