US military warns against getting hopes up over North Korean overture

A South Korean government official checking the direct communications hotline to talk with the North Korean side at the border village of Panmunjom, South Korea, on Jan 3. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - The head of United States forces in South Korea warned on Thursday (Jan 4) against raising hopes over North Korea's peace overture amid a war of words between the US and the reclusive North over its nuclear and missile programmes.

In a New Year address, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he was open to dialogue with US ally South Korea and could send a delegation to the Winter Olympics to be held in the South in February.

Mr Kim also warned that he would push ahead with mass-producing nuclear warheads, pursuing a weapons programme in defiance of United Nations Security Council sanctions.

In response, Seoul on Tuesday proposed high-level talks at a border village and on Wednesday, the two Koreas reopened a border hotline that had been closed since February 2016.

"We must keep our expectations at the appropriate level," the chief of United States Forces Korea (USFK) Vincent Brooks was quoted by Yonhap news agency as saying in an address to a university in Seoul.

US President Donald Trump and Mr Kim have exchanged a series of bellicose comments in recent months, raising alarm across the world, with Mr Trump at times dismissing the prospect of a diplomatic solution to a crisis in which North Korea has threatened to destroy the US, Japan and South Korea.

Mr Trump has mocked Mr Kim as "Little Rocket Man" and again ridiculed him on Twitter this week, raising some eyebrows at home.

"Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!" he wrote.

The White House on Wednesday defended the tweet, saying, in answer to a question, that Americans should be concerned about Mr Kim's mental fitness, not their president's.

US officials have responded coolly to North Korea's suggestion of talks and the State Department said Pyongyang "might be trying to drive a wedge" between Washington and Seoul.

Mr Brooks, who triples as commander of the South Korea-US Combined Forces Command and the United Nations Command, said the overture was a strategy to divide five countries - the US, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia - to reach its goal of being accepted as a "nuclear capable" nation, according to the Yonhap report.

"We can't ignore that reality," he said, adding it was important for the US and South Korea to maintain an "ironclad and razor sharp" alliance.

USFK and event organisers could not confirm the commander's remarks.

The five countries and the North were involved in years of on-again-off-again "six-party talks" aimed at resolving the crisis, negotiations which eventually fizzled when the North pulled out.

North Korea says its weapons are necessary to counter US aggression. The US stations 28,500 troops in the South, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.

The security crisis posed by North Korea to Japan is the most perilous since World War II because of "unacceptable" provocations, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Thursday as he vowed to bolster defences.

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