June 23, 2017 2:35 am JST

North Korean diplomat offers compromise to halt nuclear tests

Comments in India seen as attempt to divide US, South Korea

YUJI KURONUMA, Nikkei staff writer

North Korea opened the door to potentially suspending nuclear and missile testing. © Kyodo

NEW DELHI -- North Korea's ambassador to India says his country may halt its nuclear and missile tests "temporarily" if the U.S. and South Korea cease their joint military exercises near the Korean Peninsula.

Under certain circumstances, "we are willing to talk in terms of freezing nuclear testing and missile testing," Kye Chun Yong said. The rare official comment was aired Wednesday by Indian news channel WION, which recorded the interview with the ambassador Tuesday.

Kye discussed the possibility of a "moratorium" on such weapons testing, saying that should the American side "completely stop the big, large-scale military exercises, stopping temporarily or permanently, then we are also temporarily stopping."

The comments came days after new South Korean President Moon Jae-in's special adviser on unification, foreign affairs and national security, Moon Chung-in, surprised an American audience at his speech in Washington last week by suggesting the U.S. shrink their joint exercises in exchange for a suspension of North Korean testing.

Kye, undoubtedly prepped by Pyongyang, seemed intent on driving a wedge between the U.S. -- which prioritizes denuclearization of North Korea -- and South Korea, whose new president appears to favor direct North-South dialogue.

The North Korean diplomat noted in the interview that U.S. President Donald Trump "said there [were] so many options including [military action], so we should be ready [for] both of them, dialogue and militarily." North Korea is open to dialogue with the U.S. "anytime," Kye said, but he deemed "unacceptable" any preconditions such as an advance statement to "withdraw the missile program [and] nuclear program."

But the ambassador offered a moderate gesture to the South, saying Pyongyang is "encouraging the inter-Korean dialogue." He indicated North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's willingness to have a direct dialogue with Moon Jae-in.

"Possessing nuclear weapons is inevitable," Kye said, emphasizing the "very arduous choice to defend the right of existence." He cited Pyongyang's analysis that a denuclearization applying only to the Korean Peninsula carries little meaning because the U.S. and its allies "deployed a lot of nuclear weapons around Korean Peninsula, in Japan, in Guam and some small islands belonging to America."

It is unclear why North Korea made this statement from India, though the country is one of around 50 in which Pyongyang maintains an embassy. Both parties have kept a diplomatic relationship over the past four decades. India imported $87 million from North Korea in 2016, trailing only China, and exported $54 million to rank third after China and Russia.

In 2015, North Korea's foreign minister made the country's first-ever official visit to India, meeting with Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj. Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor in Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the visit was aimed at gaining India's support for North Korea's nuclear testing, because India also possesses nuclear weapons and "had taken a neutral stand during the Korean War."

But India condemned North Korea in January for its nuclear testing, and announced a trade ban covering all items prohibited under sanctions by the U.N. Security Council and International Atomic Energy Agency, excluding food and medicine.

"India should be a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council," Kye said at the beginning of the interview, adding that "if the U.N. sanctions [are] quickly withdrawn, then we can find a lot of [potential] to further develop our bilateral relations."

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