N.Korea calls for unconditional talks with South

SEOUL.– Pyongyang proposed «unconditional» talks with Seoul Wednesday to mend battered cross-border ties, in its most conciliatory remarks since cranking up tensions by shelling a South Korean island.
In an unusually cordial statement, carried by its KCNA agency, North Korea said the communist nation «courteously proposes having wide-ranging dialogue and negotiations.»
Pyongyang is «ready to meet anyone anytime anywhere», it said, calling for «unconditional and early opening of talks» among officials with «real power and responsibility.»
The gesture came two days after South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak reached out to the North, offering closer economic ties if it changes its course, amid a heightened diplomatic focus on the region over fears events on the peninsula could spiral out of control.
In his New Year policy address, delivered after the North had called for improved relations in 2011, Lee said the door for talks was «still open» if North Korea shows sincerity to mend ties.
Relations between the two Koreas were stretched to breaking point after the North shelled a South Korean island on the disputed border on November 23, killing four people, including two civilians.
The South has since staged a series of military exercises, including a live-fire drill on December 20 on the island, which heightened tensions but the North did not follow through with threats of a new and deadlier attack.
The top US envoy on North Korea landed in Beijing earlier Wednesday to hold talks with Chinese officials, after a visit to Seoul focused on reducing frictions on the peninsula.
Stephen Bosworth was expected to head for Tokyo Thursday on a three-nation tour, while US Defence Secretary Robert Gates is also scheduled to meet his Chinese counterpart in a visit to Beijing starting January 9.
In Seoul, Bosworth met South Koreas chief nuclear negotiator, Wi Sung-lac, and Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan, for talks centred on Pyongyangs nuclear programme and easing strains that have emerged since Novembers attack.
Foreign ministry officials said Bosworth stressed that Pyongyang needed to show it was sincere about mending ties with Seoul if six-party international talks on its nuclear programme are to resume.
Kim added that any resumption of the multi-party talks should be preceded by two-way talks between the Koreas.
«In order to achieve tangible progress through the talks, the right atmosphere — including bilateral talks — should be created,» Kim said.
«The government will continue pursuing both tracks — dialogue and sanctions — to press the North to prove its willingness for denuclearisation through actions,» he said.
The North had refused to discuss the nuclear issue directly with the South, saying it only wants to deal with Washington but its latest statement suggests it may be willing to engage with Seoul.
«In order to mend the north-south relations now at the lowest ebb we will conduct positive dialogue and negotiations,» said the statement.
Negotiations cannot be conducted when the North and the South are engaged in «mud-slinging and provocative acts» against eachother, it added.
The statement was met with caution by analysts in Seoul.
«North Korea appears to be making a bold proposal, although its sincerity has yet to be verified,» Kim Yong-Hyun, a professor at Seouls Dongguk University, said.
Earlier in Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said dialogue with the North should be constructive. «We dont just want to have talks for talks sake,» he said.
Crowley said the United States wanted to see a reduction of tension between the Koreas, an end to North Korean provocation, and a seriousness of purpose with respect to its obligations under a 2005 agreement on denuclearisation.
The North also raised security fears that month by disclosing a uranium enrichment plant to visiting US experts.
Bosworth and Wi agreed that the Norths uranium programme deserved a stern response from the international community, foreign ministry officials said.
The North has insisted the plant is designed solely to fuel a light-water reactor being built to produce energy. But US officials and experts say this could easily be converted to produce weapons-grade uranium.