- Associated Press - Thursday, February 2, 2012

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea on Thursday demanded several tough preconditions for resuming talks with rival South Korea, as it backed away from earlier vows to shun Seoul’s conservative leader in what could be a sign of conciliation.

South Korea quickly called the demands made in a statement by the Policy Department of the North’s powerful National Defense Commission “unreasonable.” But the timing of the statement, which follows comments Wednesday by a senior U.S. diplomat that Washington is open to diplomacy if Pyongyang improves ties with Seoul, and the change in tone after weeks of refusal to talk with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak could signal a willingness to ease tensions, analysts said.

“If clear answers are given, dialogue will resume immediately, and the inter-Korean relations that have been moving toward complete destruction will improve,” Col. Ri Son-kwon of the commission’s Policy Department, told the Associated Press in an interview. “The resumption of dialogue and the improvement of relations hinge completely on the willingness of the South’s government.”

The North’s defense commission issued a list of nine conditions, including demands that South Korea apologize for failing to show proper respect to Kim Jong-il during the mourning period that followed the leader’s Dec. 17 death. Among the other demands were that Seoul stop criticizing Pyongyang over two deadly 2010 attacks blamed on North Korea, and follow through on previous agreements that call for South Korean investments in the North.

The North also demanded an end to U.S.-South Korean military drills, which the allies hold regularly but which Pyongyang calls a rehearsal for war. A round of military exercises is to start later this month.

South Korea has called for dialogue as new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un tries to consolidate power and extend his family dynasty into a third generation following his father, Kim Jong-il’s death.

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 could be signaling that it understands 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. Although Pyongyang has been reluctant to deal with Seoul, it 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,” Mr. Delury said. “Pyongyang is trying to call Seoul’s bluff by claiming South Korea is the intransigent one.”

North Korea proudly trumpets its efforts to build nuclear weapons and has a history of aggression against its southern neighbor, and there has been uncertainty about whether Pyongyang now will lean toward provocation or reconciliation.

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.

North Korea repeatedly has pressed for the resumption of aid-for-nuclear-disarmament talks that have been stalled since Pyongyang walked away in early 2009, but Washington and Seoul have said Pyongyang first must 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 Mr. Lee’s conservative government, which ended a no-strings-attached aid policy to the North after taking power in 2008.

Thursday’s statement included some of North Korea’s typically harsh rhetoric — calling Mr. Lee a “traitor,” for instance — but it didn’t repeat earlier pledges to never talk with Seoul.

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