• Kyodo

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said Thursday he is open to a summit meeting with South Korea, an unusual overture made amid his country’s heightened tensions with the United States, Seoul’s closest ally, over a damaging cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.

“If South Korean authorities have a position that they seriously want to improve North-South relations through dialogue, we believe we can resume suspended high-level contacts and sectoral meetings,” Kim said in a nationally televised New Year’s address.

Depending on the “atmosphere and environment,” he said, “there is no reason not to be able to hold the highest-level meeting” with South Korean President Park Geun Hye.

But for this to happen, he said that South Korea must stop carrying out its annual “large-scale war exercises” with the United States.

Kim said he can no longer allow “the tragedy of ethnic division” and called for easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Since inheriting power following the death of his father in December 2011, Kim for the first time in North Korea’s official media touched on the possibility of holding talks with South Korea’s top leader, according to Tokyo-based Radiopress, which monitors Pyongyang’s media around the clock.

The two Koreas have not been able to hold a summit meeting since 2007.

Kim’s remarks came after South Korea proposed earlier this week the resumption of high-level talks in January with North Korea to discuss issues of “mutual concern” to prepare for a “peaceful unification.”

The last high-level talks between North Korea and South Korea were held in February last year and resulted in a rare reunion of families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Since then, however, persistent tensions between the two Koreas have again prevented them from sitting together at the negotiating table. They are still technically in a state of war as the Korean War ended in an armistice, not with a permanent peace treaty.

Kim devoted much of his speech this year, which lasted about 30 minutes, to South Korea.

Later in the day, the South Korean government welcomed Kim’s overture. Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl Jae described his address as “meaningful” in a statement and said Seoul hopes for dialogue with Pyongyang “in the near future regardless of its format.”

While extending an olive branch to South Korea, Kim criticized the United States, calling it “the main culprit” behind the suffering caused by the division of the peninsula and urging it to drop its “anachronistic hostile” stance and make a “bold shift” in its policy toward his country.

Kim also reiterated that North Korea has no plans to abandon its nuclear development and vowed to strengthen its military capabilities.

At the center of its most recent confrontation with the United States is the cyberattack in November on Sony Pictures, which produced “The Interview,” a comedy about an assassination plot against Kim.

But Kim made no mention of the hacking, which the United States has accused North Korea of being behind, although Pyongyang denies its involvement.

Instead, he denounced the United States for trying to “destroy our nuclear deterrent for self-defense” and piling up international pressure on North Korea in connection with human rights issues.

The leader, presumed to be 31 years old, characterized 2015 as a “significant year” since it marks both the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the peninsula from Japan’s colonial rule and of the foundation of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.

However, he made no reference to North Korea’s current relations with Japan, with which it resumed official negotiations last year.

Kim, who will have his birthday next week, also said he will improve the living standards of North Korean citizens by putting a strong focus on programs aimed at increasing the output of electricity, as well as farm, livestock and marine products.

With regard to businesses involving other countries, he said North Korea will further promote the development of special economic and tourism zones.

The New Year’s address was his third one. His speech in 2013 was the first by a North Korean leader in 19 years.

His late father Kim Jong Il never delivered an address on New Year’s Day during his 17-year rule. His message was instead conveyed in the form of an editorial in the country’s major newspapers.

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