North vows to halt nuke tests if U.S. cancels drills

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North vows to halt nuke tests if U.S. cancels drills

Pyongyang said over the weekend that it was willing to conditionally suspend its nuclear tests if the United States agrees to call off its joint annual military drills with South Korea.

But Washington dismissed the offer as an “implicit threat.”

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Saturday that Pyongyang proposed on Friday for the United States to “temporarily suspend joint military exercises in South Korea and its vicinity this year” in order to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In return, North Korea said it could postpone its nuclear tests.

The KCNA added that Pyongyang relayed the proposal to Washington through a “relevant channel” on Friday. Because Pyongyang and Washington do not have formal diplomatic ties, this could imply the so-called New York channel, or North Korea’s mission to the United Nations.

It is uncommon for Pyongyang to reach out directly to Washington when requesting the cancellation of the military drills.

North Korea also conveyed that it is “ready for dialogue” should the United States feel the need to discuss its proposal.

But U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Saturday that the way Pyongyang “inappropriately links routine [U.S.-South Korean] exercises to the possibility of a nuclear test by North Korea is an implicit threat.”

Emphasizing that the nuclear problem and military drills are separate issues, Psaki urged that there are “necessary steps toward denuclearization needed to resume credible negotiations” on North Korea’s part.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made a similar peaceful overture in his New Year’s Day speech, in which he said he was open to holding a summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye given the right “mood and setting.”

The proposal comes ahead of President Park Geun-hye’s New Year’s press conference Monday, in which she is expected to address the North Korea issue. Some experts point out that North Korea is also attempting to show Seoul and Beijing its intentions of a nuclear test moratorium.

Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test nearly two years ago in February 2013, and while the regime has threatened to launch a fourth test numerous times, it has not yet followed through.

“Taking into account that North Korea and Chinese relations suddenly worsened after the third nuclear test, there will be a much larger burden on the North should it conduct a fourth nuclear test,” said North Korea expert Koh Yoo-hwan, a Dongguk University professor. “In such a situation, playing the nuclear test card with the U.S. can be seen as an indication to hold talks soon.” 

BY SARAH KIM, YOO JI-HYE [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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