PYONGYANG, North Korea – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year's speech Thursday that he is open to more talks or even a summit with his South Korean counterpart, a statement welcomed by Seoul, which in turn urged the North to take concrete steps toward normalization of relations.
Kim's call for improving inter-Korea relations comes as Pyongyang is facing heightened criticism over its human rights record and souring ties with Washington over allegations it was involved in the massive hacking attack on Sony Pictures linked to "The Interview," a dark comedy that portrayed an assassination attempt on Kim.
North Korea has denied involvement, but said the hack was a "righteous deed" and suggested it might have been carried out by sympathizers or supporters abroad.
"We believe we can resume suspended senior-level talks and hold other talks on specific issues if South Korea sincerely has a position that it wants to improve North-South relations through a dialogue," Kim said in the nationally televised address. "And there is no reason not to hold the highest-level talks if the atmosphere and conditions are met."
Meeting such conditions has proven to be virtually impossible in the past. The two countries have not held a summit since 2007 and, despite Kim's remarks, the likelihood of one happening again soon is very low given the deep distrust that remains between the two countries.
Some experts in the South, however, cautiously welcomed the possibility of increased talks at lower levels.
"Animosities between South and North Korea would deepen ... if they fail to improve their political ties and ease military tension through a summit this year," said Cheong Seong-chang at the private think-tank Sejong Institute.
South Korean officials say they are basically open to any form of talks. Seoul is waiting for the North to respond to its earlier proposal to hold talks this month to discuss a range of issues needed to prepare for the unification and other issues of mutual concern. South Korea made the proposal earlier this week.
"If North Korea truly has a will to improve South-North relations through a dialogue, we hope (the North) quickly respond positively to our proposal for talks," South Korea's Unification Ministry said in a statement.
Kim noted that this year is particularly significant because it marks the 70th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule. Both sides claim to hold reunification as a fundamental goal, but a vast gap remains over how that should be accomplished and under what form of government a unified Korea would be administered.
On domestic policy, Kim indicated he will stick to the country's longstanding "Military First" policy and suggested he would pursue science, technology and economic policies aimed at improving the impoverished nation's standard of living.
But he also fell back to familiar accusations that the South and the United States are to blame for tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Kim said South Korea must abandon all plots to launch wars and try to work toward fostering peace, and that Washington must initiate a policy shift by abandoning its "hostile policy" and "reckless invasion plots" on the North.
The 30-minute speech was the third Kim has delivered on New Year's Day, and the first after the end of the traditional three-year mourning of the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011. Some analysts believe that with the mourning period over, Kim will pursue policies that more closely reflect his own personal priorities.