North Korea opens door to talks with South Korea

PYONGYANG, North Korea-- North Korea is open to immediate talks with rival South Korea if Seoul responds to several preconditions for dialogue, a North Korean military official told The Associated Press on Thursday.

But Ri Son Gwon, a colonel working for the Policy Department of the North's powerful National Defense Commission, also challenged South Korea to "state to the world whether it honestly intends to enter into dialogue with us."

The comments came a day after a senior U.S. diplomat said that Washington is open to settling a nuclear standoff with North Korea through diplomacy if Pyongyang first improves ties with Seoul.

"The South speaks loudly of dialogue in public, but behind the scenes it also says it cannot shake the principles that plunged North-South Korean ties into complete deadlock," Ri said in an interview in Pyongyang.

"If clear answers are given, dialogue will resume immediately," said Ri, dressed in an olive green military uniform. "The resumption of dialogue and the improvement of relations hinge completely on the willingness of the South's government."

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In the form of an "open questionnaire," the North's defense commission also laid out nine points for South Korea to respond to, including ending U.S.-South Korean military drills. The statement, however, backed away from earlier vows to shun Seoul's conservative leader.

South Korea quickly called the statement "unreasonable," but its timing and the change in tone after weeks of Pyongyang refusing to talk with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak could signal a willingness to ease tensions, analysts said.

The North's defense commission also said South Korea should apologize for failing to show proper respect to Kim Jong Il during the mourning period that followed the late leader's Dec. 17 death. It also posed questions about Seoul stopping criticism of Pyongyang over two deadly 2010 attacks blamed on North Korea, and following through on previous agreements that call for South Korean investments in the North.

The North also said U.S.-South Korean military drills must end. "It does not make sense to sit face to face with (an) enemy carrying a dagger by the belt and talk about peace," the North's statement said. Pyongyang calls the drills a rehearsal for war. A round of military exercises by the allies are to start later this month.

South Korea has called for dialogue with new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

But South Korea's Unification Ministry released a statement Thursday saying it regrets the North's "unreasonable claims as part of its propaganda at an important juncture for peace" and "does not feel the need to respond to these questions put forth by North Korea one by one."

Still, the North's statement is "a bit of an olive branch" when contrasted with its previous promises to ignore Seoul, said John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies in South Korea.

The North, he said, could be acknowledging a message relayed by Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, during a trip to Seoul this week, that Washington favors a diplomatic solution to a North Korean nuclear standoff, but only if Pyongyang improves ties with Seoul. Pyongyang has suggested a willingness to negotiate with the United States.

But "the statement is meant primarily to pull the fig leaf off the South Korean government's claims that it is open to dialogue," Delury said. "Pyongyang is trying to call Seoul's bluff by claiming South Korea is the intransigent one."

Campbell, in comments in Vietnam on Thursday, said he wasn't aware of the North's statement because he had been in meetings. "We've communicated directly to them that our expectation will be that if they want a better relationship with the international community that they will need to establish better ties between the North and the South," he said.

Pyongyang conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and has developed missiles with the potential to attack its neighbors and possibly reach the United States.

In 2010, a South Korean warship exploded in disputed waters, killing 46 people. South Korea said the North torpedoed the warship; the North denies the allegation. North Korea that year also fired artillery shells at a front-line South Korean island, killing four people. Pyongyang says a South Korean live-fire drill triggered the bombardment.

North Korea has pressed for the resumption of aid-for-nuclear disarmament talks that have been stalled since early 2009; Washington and Seoul have said Pyongyang must first follow through on previous nuclear commitments.

In late December, the North's defense commission warned South Korea and the rest of the world not to expect any change from North Korea after Kim's death and said it would never deal with Lee's conservative government, which ended a no-strings-attached aid policy to the North after taking power in 2008.

Thursday's statement called Lee a "traitor," but it didn't repeat earlier pledges to never talk with Seoul.

"It appears North Korea is cooling off after being infuriated at South Korea during the mourning period for Kim Jong Il," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea professor at Seoul's Dongguk University. "North Korea understands its relations with South Korea should improve for progress in its relations with the United States."

The Korean peninsula is still technically at war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.