N. Korea proposes high-level talks with U.S.

SEOUL, June 16 (Yonhap) -- North Korea proposed high-level talks with the United States on Sunday, days after its planned talks with South Korea broke down over the level of their chief delegates.

"(We) propose high-level talks between the North Korean and U.S. governments to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and establish regional peace and security," a spokesman of the North's powerful National Defense Commission said in an "important statement" carried by Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

The talks' agenda could include the issue of easing military tensions on the peninsula, replacing the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War with a permanent peace treaty, and the U.S. vision for a world free of nuclear weapons, among other issues of mutual interest, the spokesman said.

The overture comes five days after South and North Korea canceled their high-level talks that were planned for Wednesday and Thursday, citing differences over the rank of chief delegates to represent each side. Had they been held, the talks would have been the first high-level talks between the Koreas in six years.

The dispute was seen as underlining the big gulf that divides the two Koreas, which remain in a state of conflict after failing to sign a peace treaty at the end of the Korean War.

"If (the U.S.) is truly interested in easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and securing peace and security in the region, including the U.S. mainland, it should not speak about holding talks or making contact on the basis of pre-conditions," the spokesman said, according to the KCNA report, monitored in Seoul.

Washington has repeatedly stressed that it is not interested in holding talks for the sake of talks, urging Pyongyang to first demonstrate through action that it is serious about dismantling its nuclear weapons programs.

The communist nation claims its nuclear programs are aimed at defending itself from what it calls hostile U.S. intentions.

"We make clear once again that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is an unchanging will and determination of our armed forces and people," the spokesman said.

"Our denuclearization is the denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula, including South Korea, and the most thorough denuclearization aimed at completely ending the United States' nuclear threats against us."

The spokesman noted that denuclearization does not simply refer to the dismantlement of the North's nuclear weapons programs, apparently referring to Pyongyang's long-held stance that the U.S. should also give up its nuclear weapons.

"The U.S. can decide on the meeting's venue and time at its own convenience," the spokesman said. "All developments depend on the responsible choice of the United States, which has worsened the situation on the Korean Peninsula until now."

North Korea's recent proposals for talks come after the communist nation sharply escalated tensions in the region by launching a long-range missile last December and carrying out its third nuclear test in February.

Washington did not immediately respond to the North's offer.

"(We) will let you know when we have something," White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a brief email.

In Seoul, government sources suggested the North may be reverting to its old practice of bypassing the South to hold direct talks with the U.S.

"As expected, when the South-North talks, which were meant to be a stepping stone, broke down, the North turned to trying to hold direct talks with the U.S.," said one government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The U.S., however, is unlikely to accept the offer before Pyongyang takes concrete steps toward denuclearization, according to analysts and government sources.

"The U.S. will be able to move only when it can expect results in terms of denuclearization," said another government source, also asking for anonymity.

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