SEOUL: North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un said Thursday he is open to the “highest-level” talks with South Korea in a surprise overture delivered during the communist supremo’s traditional New Year message.
South Korean media said Kim was referring to a summit with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye. The last inter-Korean summit was held in Pyongyang in 2007 between South Korea’s late president Roh Moo-Hyun and the North’s late leader Kim Jong-Il.
“Depending on the mood and circumstances to be created, we have no reason not to hold the highest-level talks,” Kim said, calling for a turnaround in strained relations between the two Koreas, which are technically at war.
The message came days after Ryoo Kihl-Jae, the South’s unification minister in charge of inter-Korean affairs, offered to hold high-level talks with North Korea in January.
The last round of formal top-level negotiations between the neighbours was held in February and resulted in the North hosting a rare union of relatives separated by the conflict.
The two Koreas agreed to restart dialogue when a top-ranking North Korean delegation made a surprise visit to the Asian Games held in the South in October.
The unusual trip raised hopes of a thaw in relations between the neighbours, but was followed by a series of minor military clashes along the border that renewed tensions and talks never materialised.
Ties were strained further when the North angrily slammed the South for allowing its activists to send anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border via hot air balloons.
Seoul rejected Pyongyang’s demand to ban such exercises, saying there were no legal grounds to stop free activities by citizens.
Park, who came to office in early 2013, 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.
Kim said the North was ready to resume high-level talks and other kinds of dialogue if Seoul really wants to improve ties.
“We will make every effort to advance dialogue and negotiations,” he said.
Pyongyang faces growing pressure to improve its dismal human rights record as the UN steps up a campaign to refer the North’s leaders to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
The isolated nation also suffered a mysterious Internet outage last month after Washington vowed retaliation over a crippling cyber attack on Sony, the studio behind a controversial film about a fictional plot to assassinate Kim.
In his message, the leader’s tone was generally conciliatory, but he made it clear that South Korea should end its joint military exercises with the United States.
Kim’s annual New Year message, which is regarded as setting the direction of policy for the coming year, also focused on improving living standards in North Korea, which suffers chronic food shortages.
When his father and late leader, Kim Jong-Il, died in December 2011, he left a country in dire economic straits — the result of “military first” policy that fed an ambitious missile and nuclear programmes at the expense of a malnourished population.
But Kim also urged North Koreans to spare no efforts in strengthening the country’s military power through the development of “advanced” weapons.
Under his leadership, North Korea has placed a satellite in orbit and last year conducted its third — and most powerful — nuclear test.