North Korea on Sunday invited the United States to bilateral discussions aimed at improving relations, though the terms of its invitation make it unlikely any significant headway will be achieved on the nuclear weapons front, the Associated Press reported.
In making the proposal, Pyongyang's top-governing body, the National Defense Commission, said the talks must be on an unconditional basis and there could be no calls for the North to end its nuclear work unless the United States agrees to abide by the same stricture.
The Obama administration responded that it will only agree to two-way talks if Pyongyang first demonstrates its adherence to U.N. Security Council resolutions and earlier international pledges. That essentially means North Korea would have to halt its nuclear weapons development.
"As we have made clear, our desire is to have credible negotiations with the North Koreans, but those talks must involve North Korea living up to its obligations to the world, including compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions, and ultimately result in denuclearization," White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in released remarks. "We will judge North Korea by its actions, and not its words."
President Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, in a Sunday appearance on CBS said any bilateral talks with the North "have to be real. They have to be based on them living up to their obligations, to include on proliferation, on nuclear weapons, on smuggling and other things."
In asserting that the North would never give up its nuclear arms program until all of the Korean Peninsula is rid of such armaments, the National Defense Commission said that would mean "totally ending the U.S. nuclear threats."
The U.S. military withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in the early 1990s. However, the Navy fields strategic submarines in the area and the vessels occasionally participate in joint maneuvers with the South. U.S. nuclear-capable B-2 and B-52 bombers also recently participated in military exercises with Seoul.
Pyongyang's Sunday overture is one more sign that the Kim Jong Un regime has shifted away from the saber-rattling tactics of this spring that saw regional tensions brought to one of their highest points in decades. In making its offer, the North said Washington should propose the schedule and locale for the meeting.
The wording of the proposal suggests that North Korea wants the Obama administration to offer concessions and diplomatic engagement in return for not furthering work on nuclear weapons that could target the continental United States, according to the New York Times.
The Kim regime's bid reveals no "fundamental change" in its foreign posture, Dongguk University North Korea expert Kim Yong-hyun said in an interview.
The U.S. special envoy for North Korea policy, Glyn Davies, is slated to host his South Korean and Japanese opposites for three-way talks this week in Washington.
As China is the North's biggest economic benefactor, the United States sees Beijing as playing a crucial role in producing a real lasting change in the regional nuclear impasse. At a recent Wilson Center event, Davies said: "We have every expectation that Beijing will use its special relationship with the D.P.R.K. to encourage Pyongyang to choose a different path," the Christian Science Monitor reported.
In recent months, the Chinese government has signaled that it intends to take a stronger line with its longtime ally, publicly affirming that it would fully implement the latest Security Council sanctions measures and cutting off all financial dealings with a North Korean firm seen as a principal conduit for funding for weapons of mass destruction work.
The timing of Pyongyang's talks proposal suggests that it is seeking to "keep China in check," according Dongguk University's Kim. The aspiring nuclear power is also likely signaling to Seoul that it will try to isolate it from strategic talks if the South does not move to bolster inter-Korean ties, the academic said.
Seoul is at least publicly unconcerned about being cut off from talks. South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae on Monday told lawmakers "there is little worry of Pyongyang trying to bypass the South to talks directly with the United States," the Yonhap News Agency reported.
In a May meeting, a top Kim regime official sought to get acknowledgement from Beijing of North Korea's status as a nuclear-armed nation, an informed insider told Yonhap on Sunday.
"The Chinese side expressed its negative stance on North Korea's request, according to the anonymous source.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Monday announced that the North's senior atomic negotiator, Kim Kye Gwan, is slated to travel to Beijing for a "strategic dialogue" on Wednesday with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui, Yonhap separately reported.