North Korea on Thursday demanded the lifting of U.N. sanctions and the end of U.S.-South Korea military drills as conditions for resuming talks meant to defuse tension on the Korean Peninsula.
The statement from the Policy Department of the National Defense Commission, the country's top governing body, came four days after Pyongyang rejected Seoul's latest dialogue offer as insincere. The U.S. says it is prepared to talk to the North but Pyongyang must first bring down tensions and honor previous disarmament agreements.
"Dialogue can never go with war actions," said the North Korean statement, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
The statement said the U.S. must also withdraw all nuclear weapons assets from South Korea and the region before the talks can resume. It said South Korea must stop all anti-North Korea talks, such as its recent announcement blaming Pyongyang for a cyberattack that shut down tens of thousands of computers and servers at South Korean broadcasters and banks last month. North Korea has denied responsibility for the cyberattack.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry dismissed the North's demand as illogical. "We again strongly urge North Korea to stop this kind of insistence that we cannot totally understand and go down the path of a wise choice," spokesman Cho Tai-young told reporters.
But in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry put a more positive spin on Pyongyang's response.
"It's the first word of negotiation or thought of that we have heard from them since all of this has begun," he told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. "I'm prepared to look at that as at least a beginning, not acceptable obviously, and we have to go further."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One that the U.S. remains open to "authentic and credible negotiations." But he said the U.S. has not seen any commitment from North Koreans that they are willing to end their nuclear program.
In recent weeks, North Korea has ratcheted up tension on the divided peninsula, threatening to attack the U.S. and South Korea over the military drills and sanctions imposed for its February nuclear test. Pyongyang calls the annual drills a rehearsal for invasion. South Korean officials have also said the North is poised to test-fire a medium-range missile capable of reaching the American territory of Guam.
The ongoing annual drills, called Foal Eagle, are to finish at the end of April. Seoul and Washington officials say they are defensive in nature, and insist they have no intention of invading the North.
The U.S. has about 28,500 troops in South Korea to help deter potential aggression from North Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War. That war ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.