SEOUL – North Korea proposed Thursday that the rival Koreas halt hostile military actions and mutual vilification to build better relations. But it said it would maintain its nuclear weapons program, while urging South Korea to cancel upcoming military drills with the United States.
Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said South Korea would go ahead with the drills, which he insisted are defensive in nature. South Korea’s government would issue an official response to the proposal Friday, he said.
The proposal by the North’s National Defense Commission was a sharp departure from the repeated threats of nuclear strikes against Seoul and Washington that raised tensions a year ago. Analysts say Kim Jong Un’s government hopes that improved ties with South Korea could help attract foreign investment to boost the communist nation’s lagging economy.
Kim called for better relations in his New Year’s Day message, but South Korean officials said North Korea must first demonstrate its sincerity by taking steps toward nuclear disarmament.
The North proposed Thursday that the rivals halt military provocations and slander starting Jan. 30, the day before Lunar New Year’s Day, which is celebrated by both sides. In particular, it said, all provocations should be halted near the countries’ disputed western sea boundary, the scene of several bloody clashes in recent years.
It urged the South not to allow the United States to bring nuclear-capable weapons into South Korean territory and nearby areas, while indicating that the North has no intention of giving up its own nuclear arms.
“Our nuclear force serves as a means for deterring the U.S. from posing a nuclear threat. It will never be a means for blackmailing the fellow countrymen and doing harm to them,” said the statement, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
On Wednesday, North Korea said the joint U.S.-South Korean military drills might plunge ties between the Koreas toward a “catastrophe.”
Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said the North’s proposal could set the groundwork for blaming South Korea for tensions between the countries in the future. “I don’t think North Korea made these proposals believing that South Korea would accept them,” he said.
North Korea has made similar conciliatory gestures in the past to win concessions and aid after stoking tensions. Last year, Kim also talked about improved ties with South Korea in his New Year’s Day message, but followed that with a nuclear test in February and threats of nuclear war in the following months.
Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University, said the proposal shows that Kim actually wants better ties with South Korea. He said improved relations depend on what kinds of tension-easing measures North Korea takes.