North Korea denies sanctions prompted diplomatic thaw

US President Donald Trump's announcement earlier this month that he was willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after an invitation conveyed by envoys from the South - triggered a flurry of diplomatic activity.
US President Donald Trump's announcement earlier this month that he was willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after an invitation conveyed by envoys from the South - triggered a flurry of diplomatic activity. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP, REUTERS) - North Korea has broken its silence on the diplomatic thaw with Washington and Seoul, saying it is driving the "peace offensive" and rejecting suggestions that sanctions forced it to the negotiating table.

The commentary from the state-run KCNA news agency came with a rapid rapprochement on the Korean peninsula under way, after a period of heightened tensions stoked by missile and nuclear tests.

But as diplomats scurry to arrange two proposed summits - North-South talks followed by a face-to-face meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un - the North's silence had raised concerns over its intentions.

The commentary in the North's official news agency KCNA late on Tuesday (March 20) did not directly mention the summits but noted the "dramatic atmosphere for reconciliation" with the South and "a sign of change" with the US.

But it said Pyongyang's overtures came from a position of strength, not from weakness, even as it confronts intense international pressure as well as biting economic sanctions over its nuclear weapons programme.

"The dialogue peace offensive of the DPRK is an expression of self-confidence as it has acquired everything it desires," it said, using the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

It also slammed hawks in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo for questioning the sincerity and motivation behind the North's willingness to step back from the brink.

 

"Such rubbish as 'result of sanctions and pressure'... spread by hostile forces is just as meaningless as a dog barking at the moon," it said, urging "prudence" for all parties involved.

"It is really an expression of small-mindedness for the riff-raffs to spoil the atmosphere and say this or that even before the parties concerned are given a chance to study the inner thoughts of the other side and are seated at a negotiating table," it said in typically colourful language.

Trump's announcement earlier this month that he was willing to meet the North's young leader - after an invitation conveyed by envoys from the South - triggered a flurry of diplomatic activity.

The North's foreign minister Ri Yong Ho met his counterpart from Sweden, which represents Washington's interests in North Korea, in Stockholm over the weekend, with reports saying they discussed the release of three Americans detained in the North.

Choe Kang Il, a senior Pyongyang diplomat handling ties with the US, is currently in Finland for discussions with the retired former US ambassador to Seoul, Kathleen Stephens.

The South and the US announced on Tuesday a plan to resume annual joint military exercises with its main drill shortened by a month - in an apparent conciliatory gesture over an event that infuriates the North.

In the Finnish talks, denuclearisation was not on the agenda of the meeting between delegations from both Koreas and the United States, Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini said on Tuesday.

Soini, speaking in an interview with Finnish broadcaster MTV, said North Korea's nuclear programmes were not on the table at the talks that end on Wednesday.

"This is a so-called 1.5 track meeting with academics and officials, with Finland only a facilitator ... but since we talk about 1.5 track, I think there will be no talk about nuclear weapons."

"It is good to have the discussion going on and take the use of this time frame that was opened between the South and North Korea before the (Winter) Olympics (last month)," Soini said.

The 18 delegates were secluded in talks at a 19th century government manor outside town. No statements were given when they left in the afternoon but South Korean delegate Kim Joon-Hyung, professor of international politics from Handong Global University, told reporters later that the talks had been "productive" and that the atmosphere had been good.