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North Korea calls for talks; South skeptical

A call to 'open their hearts' is the latest in a series of overtures from Pyongyang. Officials in Seoul say the regime needs to demonstrate with actions that it truly seeks peace.

January 09, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • A display shows photos of sailors who died when their ship sank; Seoul blames the North.
A display shows photos of sailors who died when their ship sank; Seoul blames… (Ahn Young-joon, Associated…)

Reporting from Seoul — North Korea has ushered in 2011 with a series of gestures that seem designed to keep officials in South Korea off guard, and Saturday was no exception, with Pyongyang calling for officials in Seoul to "open their hearts" and resume talks after weeks of hostility on the divided Korean peninsula.

As the reclusive regime celebrated what was believed to be the 28th birthday of Kim Jong Eun, the heir apparent to his ailing father, Kim Jong Il, the North reiterated its proposal for what it termed unconditional negotiations with the South.

"We do not want to see the present South Korean authorities pass the five-year term of their office idly without North-South dialogue," the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement carried by the state-run news agency. "There is neither conditionality in the North's proposal for dialogue nor need to cast any doubt about its real intention."

Pyongyang's gently worded offer came just days after South Korea dismissed as propaganda an overture for a high-level meeting, saying the regime needed to demonstrate with concrete actions that it truly sought peace in the region.

The North's conciliatory stance follows a well-established carrot-and-stick model in which Pyongyang pushes the level of conflict to the brink of serious hostilities before relenting with offers of talks and requests for food and financial aid.

Tensions between the two sides, still technically at war more than half a century after an armistice ended the Korean conflict, have remained high for months.

Last March, South Korea blamed the North in the sinking of a warship that killed 46 crewmen. In November, four people died when North Korea shelled the disputed South Korean island Yeonpyeong. The North insisted that Seoul provoked the attack by aiming a live-fire artillery drill at its sovereign waters.

In its latest offer, North Korea proposed discussing the resumption of a joint tourism program that was suspended in 2008 when a South Korean tourist was shot to death after reportedly entering a restricted area in the North. The offer also called for renewed cooperation at a jointly run industrial park that the North shut down last year.

"The South Korean authorities should discard any unnecessary misgiving, open their hearts and positively respond to the North's proposal," said the statement carried by the Korea Central News Agency.

South Korean officials said Saturday that they would review the latest offer from Pyongyang but noted that they had yet to receive an official request for talks.

"We are checking whether North Korea has sent official messages to our government or the military," a Seoul government official told the Yonhap news agency. Without an official request, the official said, Seoul would consider the proposal "not an official dialogue offer, just a unilateral announcement."

In a New Year's Day message, Pyongyang emphasized the importance of improved relations with South Korea, and later proposed "unconditional and early" cross-border talks.

Washington and Seoul have said they would not support renewed dialogue with Pyongyang until the regime took such steps as acknowledging its role in the March sinking of the warship.

"We are open to dialogue, as we've said clearly, but there are definitely steps that North Korea must take to make it clear that actual face-to-face discussions would be constructive," State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley told reporters Friday.

In an unrelated development, activists apparently hacked North Korea's Twitter account Saturday and posted several tweets derogatory of Kim Jong Il and his son, who is known in the North as the "Young General."

The posts excoriated both for enjoying sumptuous lives while North Koreans starved, Yonhap said. It was unclear whether the hackers were in North Korea or the South.

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