SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea is ready to improve relations with "friendly" countries, the communist country's No. 2 leader said Sunday ahead of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Asia.
The remark by Kim Yong Nam, North Korea's ceremonial head of state, could be an olive branch to Washington before Clinton's trip — even though it came amid reports the North is gearing up to test-fire a long-range missile in an apparent attempt to grab President Barack Obama's attention.
Clinton was scheduled to depart Sunday on a trip to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China.
"We will develop relations with countries that are friendly toward us," Kim told a national meeting held as part of celebrations on the eve of the 67th birthday of leader Kim Jong Il, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
North Korea has also been escalating tensions with the South, declaring all peace pacts with Seoul dead in anger over the hard-line stance South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has taken toward it.
In Seoul, outgoing U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill met with his South Korean counterpart to discuss Clinton's trip and heightened tension on the Korean peninsula.
"We agreed that the current South-North relations are not desirable at all and the North should accept our dialogue proposal and should not aggravate the situation," said Kim Sook, Seoul's chief nuclear envoy.
Hill declined to comment on the North's reported missile moves, saying only that he talked about the "concerns we have about (North Korea's) behavior of late."
But the American envoy urged the North to honor its commitment to give up nuclear weapons.
"We've had too many interruptions and the interruptions have slowed us down too much," Hill said, referring to stalled international talks on North Korea's nuclear programs. The negotiations are deadlocked over the North's refusal to fully verify its past nuclear activities.
North Korea has reportedly moved a long-range Taepodong-2 missile to a launch site on the country's northeastern coast. The missile is the country's most advanced, and is believed capable of reaching U.S. territory. South Korean media have said a launch could come this month.
Analysts say North Korea's saber rattling appears to be an attempt to grab Obama's attention so as to start negotiations where it can extract concessions, since the new U.S. administration seemed more interested in other issues such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
Seoul and Washington have issued repeated warnings to North Korea over a possible missile launch.
On Friday, Clinton urged North Korea not to take any provocative actions, saying Washington is willing to normalize ties with it in return for nuclear disarmament.
Relations between the two Koreas have been frayed since Lee took office a year ago with pledges to take a harder line on the North.
The two Koreas remain technically in a state of conflict because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.