North Korea urges talks with South

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South Korean foreign minister Kim Sung-hwan, right, shakes hands with US special envoy on North Korea Stephen Bosworth (AP)

North Korea has called for “unconditional and early” talks with rival South Korea to put an end to months of tensions.

Seoul quickly dismissed the offer as insincere and said it is waiting for an apology for two deadly attacks blamed on Pyongyang.

It is rare for North Korea to issue such a statement addressed to South Korea and it came as the US envoy to the North was in the region to discuss the stand-off. Earlier on Wednesday, Stephen Bosworth sought to calm fears of conflict on the peninsula.

Tensions between the two Koreas have been at their highest level in years since North Korea showered artillery on a South Korean-held island near their disputed maritime border in November, killing four South Koreans.

The attack was the first on a civilian area since the 1950-53 Korean War, and occurred in waters not far from the spot where a torpedo sank a South Korean warship eight months early, killing 46 sailors. That attack was also blamed on the North – an allegation the country vehemently denies.

But the North has made some conciliatory moves recently. On New Year’s Day, the government issued a lengthy statement calling for warmer ties and the resumption of joint projects with South Korea. Pyongyang, eager for food and fuel assistance, has said it wants stalled international aid-for-nuclear-disarmament talks to restart. Washington and Seoul have said the North must first fulfil past nuclear disarmament commitments.

On Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak vowed to increase his country’s defences but made clear the door was open for talks with Pyongyang and was willing to enhance economic cooperation between the rivals. On Wednesday, North Korean officials responded with their own call for negotiations.

“We are ready to meet anyone anytime and anywhere, letting bygones be bygones, if he or she is willing to go hands in hands with us,” said a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. It added that history has shown that such confrontations can only lead to an “armed clash and war”.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry immediately rebuffed the overtures.

“We don’t consider it as a sincere offer of dialogue,” ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said. North Korea first must apologise for the two attacks and take “sincere” steps toward nuclear disarmament, she said.

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