SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea proposed Monday signing a peace treaty this year to formally end the Korean War, a suggestion that Washington quickly dismissed.
In a move seen as an attempt to bolster its negotiating position, the isolated communist regime said a return to negotiations on its nuclear weapons program depends on better relations with Washington and the lifting of sanctions.
However, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Monday that peace treaty talks would only be discussed once North Korea comes back to six-nation nuclear talks and takes steps on abandoning its nuclear programs.
As for dropping sanctions, Crowley said, "We're not going to pay North Korea to come back to the six-party process."
He urged North Korea to "say yes" to returning to the talks "and then we can begin to march down the list of issues that we have."
North Korea has long demanded a peace treaty, but the prospects seem dim with South Korea suspicious that its rival is using the issue as a distraction and a U.S. official saying Monday that the authoritarian North must improve its human rights record before any normalization of ties.
Washington and Pyongyang have never had diplomatic relations because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, thus leaving the peninsula technically at war. North Korea, the U.S.-led United Nations Command and China signed a cease-fire, but South Korea never did.
North Korea, which claims it was forced to develop atomic bombs to cope with U.S. threats, quit six-nation nuclear talks last year in anger over international condemnation of a long-range rocket launch.
The country later conducted its second nuclear test, test-launched a series of ballistic missiles and restarted its plutonium-producing facility, inviting widespread condemnation and tighter U.N. sanctions.
After months of tension, however, the North said last month it understood the need to resume the talks with the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan following bilateral talks with the U.S. in Pyongyang, another longtime demand. Still, the country did not make a firm commitment on when it would rejoin the forum.
Now, the North is saying the resumption of the six-nation nuclear talks depends on building confidence between Pyongyang and Washington by quickly starting talks on a peace treaty and lifting the sanctions.
"If confidence is to be built between (North Korea) and the U.S., it is essential to conclude a peace treaty for terminating the state of war, a root cause of the hostile relations," the country's Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
Such a confidence-building measure is necessary to "bring back the process for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula on track," the statement said.
The United States has resisted signing a treaty while the North possesses nuclear weapons. Washington, however, has said, that the subject can be discussed within the framework of the six-party nuclear talks, which have not been held for more than a year.
Stephen Bosworth, President Barack Obama's special envoy on North Korea, said last month after the talks in Pyongyang that he conveyed a message from Obama calling for the "complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" and underlined Washington's willingness to help bring the isolated country back into the international fold. He also said discussion of a peace treaty could take place within the six-party talks framework.
Rival South Korea is suspicious of the North's calls for a peace treaty, which it has said are a tactic to delay denuclearization. China, which hosts the six-party talks and fought on North Korea's side during the Korean War, seldom says anything about a treaty, though analyst Baek Seung-joo of the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses said the country has no reason to oppose one "as long as it helps resume the six-party talks."
The North's statement called for a peace treaty to be concluded this year, which it emphasized marks the 60th anniversary since the outbreak of the Korean War.
A landmark disarmament-for-aid deal in 2005, part of the six-party talks, states that "the directly related parties will negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula at an appropriate separate forum." And a subsequent 2007 deal upheld the previous accord.
Analysts said the North's proposal likely means it wants to elevate the signing of a peace treaty as a key issue in the nuclear disarmament talks.
"We can see its concealed intention to soften discussion of its denuclearization," said Yang Moo-jin of Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.
Baek agreed, saying the North seeks international recognition as a nuclear weapons state.
"I don't think they are truly aiming to establish a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula," Baek said.
The North's statement said the peace talks could be held within the framework of the six-party talks or at a separate forum as agreed in a 2005 disarmament pact.
Baek and Yang said it would be difficult for the U.S. and other regional powers to reject the North's demand because it was part of previous six-party deals.
Peter Beck, an expert on North Korea conducting research at Stanford University, said the North's proposal carries both pitfalls and opportunities for the U.S.
"The concern is that this will give the North Koreans a sense that the focus is no longer on denuclearization, it's on a peace treaty and sort of accepting the North Koreans as a nuclear state," Beck said. "So that's certainly why the administration's been very cautious."
Beck added, however, that in reality North Korea is a nuclear state and Obama needs to offer "concrete steps" to get the denuclearization process going, with accepting the North's call for a peace treaty a possible way forward.
"It costs Washington nothing and could test the North Koreans as to their seriousness about real negotiations," he said.
The call for dropping sanctions, however, is seen as a nonstarter.
Another obstacle is North Korea's human rights record, which is generally considered to be one of the worst in the world with the country said to hold 150,000 people in political prison camps.
Robert King, Obama's special envoy for human rights in North Korea, harshly criticized the communist country Monday and said that the situation is preventing a normalization of relations.
"The situation is appalling," he said in Seoul regarding human rights conditions in the North, adding that they must improve before normalization of relations with the U.S. can be achieved.