SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said today it doesn’t oppose resuming dialogue with the United States in its first conciliatory gesture following months of threats to attack South Korea and American bases and warnings of preemptive nuclear strikes.
The offer is predicated on receiving U.S. assurances that it isn’t trying to provoke a nuclear war, an unidentified Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a statement on the official Korean Central News Agency.
This came less than a day after North Korea threatened to attack South Korea at any time. The totalitarian state has repeatedly said the region is on the brink of war since testing a nuclear weapon in February in defiance of increased United Nations sanctions.
President Barack Obama said North Korea probably isn’t able to launch a nuclear-tipped missile.
“Based on our current intelligence assessments, we do not think that they have that capacity,” Obama said in a recorded interview broadcast this morning on NBC’s “Today” show. Even so, he said, “we have to make sure we are dealing with every contingency out there.” Obama said the U.S. has repositioned missile defenses “to guard against any miscalculation on their part” and that he expected North Korea to “make more provocative moves over the next several weeks.”
“We’re not going to reward this kind of provocative behavior,” Obama said. “You don’t get to bang your spoon on the table and, somehow, you get your way.”
A U.S. military official earlier said that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s inexperience raises the risk of miscalculation even though it is unlikely his regime will launch a missile that directly threatens South Korea.
While a missile or nuclear weapons test remains possible given the hostile rhetoric from the totalitarian state over the past several weeks, there are no signs North Korean forces are mobilizing, the U.S. Forces Korea official told reporters today in Seoul. The comments came hours after the comment from Kim’s military that a strike on South Korea could come at any time.
North Korea for a second day commemorated the April 15 birthday of state founder Kim Il Sung — the current leader’s grandfather — as both the U.S. and South Korea said they are willing to return to negotiations.
“North Korea right now seems to be weighing whether it’s more beneficial to restart talks with the U.S. or South Korea,” said Hahm Hyeong-pil, an analyst at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. “If they want to appeal to the U.S., then the North will continue to escalate tensions with more threats and if it chooses the South, then it will not fire a missile.”
North Korea’s military today issued “an ultimatum” to the South, saying “retaliatory action” would be aimed at those involved in instigating protests in Seoul where portraits of Kim Il Sung were set on fire, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
The recent rhetoric from the North has been conditional, and the possibility of an attack always hinged on what the U.S. or South Korea may do to avert one, the U.S. Forces Korea official said, asking not to be named in line with military policy. North Korea should look to its options for ending the cycle of escalated tensions, he said.
Should North Korea choose to launch a missile, it probably will be a short-range one that falls into the sea, the official said. Neither the U.S. nor South Korea will know about any launch until it is airborne, he added.
Kim, who succeeded his late father Kim Jong Il in December 2011 and is thought to be under 30, has pursued his family’s military-first policy while spurning offers of aid in return for abandoning the country’s nuclear development program.
Secretary of State John Kerry this week ended a trip to Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo by calling for dialogue with Kim’s regime, while saying a nuclear-armed North Korea was unacceptable. South Korean President Park Geun-hye on April 11 offered to resume discussions with North Korea.
The North has threatened to conduct a preemptive nuclear strike on the U.S. and South Korea, which would require technology the country has yet to demonstrate.
Monday night, the young Kim watched military cadets compete in a sports contest and performers singing songs praising his grandfather, according to KCNA. Foreigners in Pyongyang today visited the 15th Kimilsungia Festival, featuring the flower named after the country’s founder, KCNA said.