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North Korean leader reaffirms nuke aims, but offers talks

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has said his country “as a nuclear state” will work toward the denuclearization of the world, the country’s official media reported Sunday.

South Korean experts and government officials say the comment hints at the softened attitude of Kim, who has stepped up nuclear and missile threats against Seoul and Washington, but by no means implies its intent to take actual steps toward its own denuclearization as demanded by the allies.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks during the ruling Workers' Party of Korea's Congress in this photo distributed by communist state's Korea Central News Agency on Saturday. (Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks during the ruling Workers' Party of Korea's Congress in this photo distributed by communist state's Korea Central News Agency on Saturday. (Yonhap)

According to the Korea Central News Agency, Kim claimed that his country had become a nuclear state by conducting its first hydrogen bomb in Jan. 6, which most experts along with Seoul and Washington’s government officials have said is highly unlikely to be true.

“As a responsible nuclear state, our republic (North Korea) will not preemptively use a nuclear weapon unless hostile forces attempt to infringe upon our autonomy with nukes. We will carry out our obligation of nuclear non-proliferation for the international society, and work toward realizing denuclearization of the world,” he said during the second day of the congress of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.

The event is expected to last for up to four days, with the party unveiling its future goals and naming Kim to the highest-ranked position in the party.  As Kim’s father and former leader Kim Jong-il holds the position of “eternal general secretary,” there are expectations that Kim will be named to a newly-created position.

In addition, he said that military officials of the Koreas should hold talks and negotiations to “address mistrust and misunderstanding” between each other, once again urging the U.S. not to intervene in peninsular affairs.

The North is currently under U.N.-led sanctions, intended as punitive actions against its January nuclear test and Feb. 7 long-range rocket launch which violated previous U.N. resolution banning its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

While this marks the first time the North leader has mentioned denuclearization at all, government officials have said that such remarks do not indicate that the communist will abandon its nuclear programs.

“Not much has changed, since Kim said that the North’s actions will be ‘as a nuclear state.’ It just means that he wants to reaffirm his country’s status as a self-proclaimed nuclear state,” said a high-ranking South Korean military official.

During his WPK speech, Kim said that developing nuclear weapons in parallel with boosting its economy -- which Pyongyang adopted as its official strategic goal in 2013 -- is now its permanent objective.

Contrary to the North’s claim of having a nuclear strike capacity, it has yet to demonstrate its ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to mount onto a ballistic missile. Its botched launches of the intermediate-range Musudan missile last month puts the country’s nuclear strike capacity further in doubt.

The official added that the military cannot consider Kim’s offer of talks, as the government’s stance right now is that the North giving up its nuclear programs should prelude recommencing negotiations.

“Unless North Korea takes some additional, meaningful actions -- such as ceasing production of nuclear materials -- (Kim’s remarks) cannot be regarded as having a legitimate intent to resolve nuclear issues in the peninsula, said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.

The professor pointed out that the WPK’s reports on its future plans did not have any mention of such actions, saying Kim’s comments were largely “symbolic.”

While Kim’s comments were “nothing new,” University of North Korean Studies professor Yang Moo-jin said that it showed Kim’s willingness to talk.

North Korea threatened in late March to strike South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye as a response to Seoul and Washington’s annual joint military drills that concluded on April 30. South Korean military said last month that the North was seen preparing an attack simulation on a model of Cheong Wae Dae last month.

Yang pointed out that the North had refrained from carrying out another nuclear test ahead of the WPK congress, as widely predicted by local experts and government officials.

“There are two countries that can stop the North’s nuclear test: China and the U.S. China has sent a strong message toward Pyongyang (to comply with calls made by the international society), and U.S. director of national intelligence (James) Clapper is said to have mentioned peace talks,” he said.

Local media reported that James Clapper, the DNI director, had asked South Korean government officials what conditions they would accept if the U.S. started to discuss peace talks with Pyongyang. Government officials refused to confirm the report.

“Both the U.S. and China influenced (Pyongyang) not to conduct (additional) nuclear tests, and as an extension (of such influence), Kim is now sending a relatively peaceful message,” Yang said.

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at a local think-tank Sejong Institute, suggested that Kim’s mention of inter-Korea talks and improving relations is not directed toward Park, but the next administration.

Park has retained her hawkish approach toward the North, repeatedly mentioning the fall of Kim regime’s downfall in public speeches.

“The WPK’s policies and directions are announced with the next five to 10 years in mind, which leads me to believe that the prospects of improving relations with the next (South Korean) leadership is factored in Kim’s statement,” Cheong said. “South Korea’s general election that took place right before the WPK congress, saw the opposition -- which is more positive toward inter-Korea talks -- taking an overwhelming victory. This may have led Kim to demonstrate a relatively softer attitude toward the South.”

Observers have said that Kim’s seemingly softer remarks may reflect his will to find an exit strategy amid the powerful economic sanctions.

Defense Minister Han Min-koo, in a report to the parliamentary defense committee last week, said that the international sanctions and preparations for the WPK congress has driven up complaints from  North Korean citizens, leading to an increase in defection and robbery.

Experts say it is unlikely for the hermit kingdom to conduct another nuclear test any time soon,

But Kim Yong-hyun of Dongguk University said that there is a possibility that the North may test-launch another ballistic missile before the incumbent U.S. President Barack Obama completes his term in January 2017.

By Yoon Min-sik(