Senior North Korean diplomat raises possibility of talks with US

North Korea’s ambassador to India says US joint drills with South Korea must end

South Korean president Moon Jae-in says his country would not be stopping joint military drills with the US, as they are defensive. Photograph: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

South Korean president Moon Jae-in says his country would not be stopping joint military drills with the US, as they are defensive. Photograph: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

 

North Korea’s top diplomat to India has suggested the possibility of freezing nuclear tests in an apparent bid to hold talks with the United States, as Washington resumes efforts to get China to put more pressure on Pyongyang.

The death of American university student Otto Warmbier this week after his release following 17 months of imprisonment in North Korea has hardened the US position and cranked up tensions in Asia.

Dealing with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions has become US president Donald Trump’s biggest security challenge, and the isolated communist state has been sanctioned by the international community for testing nuclear weapons and launching missiles.

In one of the most wide-ranging interviews with a North Korean official on the tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the country’s ambassador to India, Kye Chun-yong, told Indian broadcaster WION the North was willing to talk about freezing nuclear and missile tests “under certain circumstances”.

The prospect of a moratorium is the most positive sign in months in the nuclear stand-off, although we have been here before. In February 2012, the North Korea agreed to temporarily freeze its uranium enrichment programme and stop testing missiles in exchange for fuel and food aid from the US.

However, it subsequently launched a rocket that was seen as a missile test.

Fear of invasion

Before any talks, the US must stop joint military drills with South Korea, which Pyongyang has long criticised as preparations for invasion of the North, said Mr Kye.

“For instance, if the American side completely stopped large-scale military exercises, temporarily or permanently, then let us talk about how to solve the Korean issue peacefully,” he said.

Seoul and Washington insist the manoeuvres are defensive and President Moon Jae-in said he would not scale back the drills.

The Korean war (1950-1953) ended without a ceasefire between the two countries, with millions of casualties, and Mr Kye said another war on the peninsula must be avoided. “Another Korean war means a nuclear war. If nuclear war happens on the Korean Peninsula, it is a fratricidal war.”

North Korea has carried out five nuclear tests and is said to be preparing a sixth.

Most alarmingly for Washington, the North has pledged to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach mainland USA.

Weapons testing

Asked if the North planned to launch such a missile, Mr Kye said: “The US is continuously threatening . . . Trump said there are so many options including military, so we should be ready for dialogue and militarily. If our demands [are] met, we can negotiate in terms of the moratorium of such things as weapons testing,” he said.

At security talks between US defence chiefs and senior Chinese diplomats taking place in Washington, the US is trying to get China to exert more pressure again on North Korea.

On Wednesday, Mr Trump thanked China for its help on pressuring North Korea, but said it hadn’t worked, in what some read as a tweet criticising Beijing for inaction. Now Mr Trump has said: “we have a great relationship with China”.

China, North Korean’s main trading partner and only significant ally, has been accused of only half-heartedly enforcing UN sanctions, and Washington wants tougher measures. Chinese state media on Thursday tellingly spoke of the country’s commitment to resolving the crisis on its doorstep.