North Korea’s foreign minister has said his country is ready to halt its nuclear tests if the United States suspends its annual military exercises with Seoul.
He also defended the country’s right to maintain a nuclear deterrent and warned that Pyongyang would not be cowed by international sanctions.
And for those waiting for the North’s regime to collapse, he had this to say: Don’t hold your breath.
In his first interview with a Western news organisation, Ri Su Yong held firm to Pyongyang’s long-standing position that the US drove his country to develop nuclear weapons as an act of self-defence.
But at the same time, he suggested that suspending the military exercises with Seoul could open the door to talks and reduced tensions.
“If we continue on this path of confrontation, this will lead to very catastrophic results, not only for the two countries but for the whole entire world as well,” he told The Associated Press in the country’s diplomatic mission to the United Nations, speaking in Korean through an interpreter .
“It is really crucial for the United States government to withdraw its hostile policy against the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and as an expression of this stop the military exercises, war exercises, in the Korean Peninsula. Then we will respond likewise.”
Mr Ri, who spoke calmly and in measured words, a contrast to the often bombastic language used by the North’s media, claimed Pyongyang’s proposal was “very logical”.
“Stop the nuclear war exercises in the Korean Peninsula, then we should also cease our nuclear tests,” he said.
He spoke beneath portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il, North Korea’s two previous leaders – the grandfather and father of current leader Kim Jong Un.
If the exercises are halted “for some period, for some years”, he said, “new opportunities may arise for the two countries and for the whole entire world as well.”
Mr Ri’s comments came hours after North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile from a submarine in its latest show of defiance as the US-South Korea exercises wind down.
He referred to the launch in the context of current tensions caused by the military exercises, saying: “The escalation of this military exercise level has reached its top level. And I think it’s not bad – as the other side is going for the climax – why not us, too, to that level as well?”
Sanctions, Mr Ri said, would not sway the North.
“If they believe they can actually frustrate us with sanctions, they are totally mistaken,” he said.
“The more pressure you put on to something, the more emotionally you react to stand up against it. And this is important for the American policymakers to be aware of.”
It is extremely rare for top North Korean officials to give interviews to foreign media, particularly with Western news organisations.
But Mr Ri’s proposal may well fall on deaf ears. North Korea, which sees the US-South Korean exercises as a rehearsal for invasion, has floated similar proposals to Washington in the past but the America has insisted the North give up its nuclear weapons programme before any negotiations.
The result has been a stalemate between the two countries that Mr Ri said has put the peninsula at the crossroads of a thermonuclear war.
In an initial response to Mr Ri’s remarks, a US official defended the military exercises as demonstrating America’s commitment to its alliance with the South and said they enhanced the combat readiness, flexibility and capabilities of the alliance.
“We call again on North Korea to refrain from actions and rhetoric that further raise tensions in the region and focus instead on taking concrete steps toward fulfilling its international commitments and obligations,” he said.