Seoul rejects North Korea's talks offer as "propaganda"

SEOUL Thu Jan 6, 2011 4:29pm EST

A South Korean army's AH-1S helicopter fires a missile during a live fire drill in Yangpyeong, east of Seoul, January 6, 2011. REUTERS/Han Sang-gyun/Yonhap

A South Korean army's AH-1S helicopter fires a missile during a live fire drill in Yangpyeong, east of Seoul, January 6, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Han Sang-gyun/Yonhap

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea has dismissed a North Korean call for unconditional talks to ease tensions, saying on Thursday the offer was "propaganda" it does not take seriously.

The North's move on Wednesday came as the United States met Chinese and South Korean officials for talks on how to calm the Korean peninsula and persuade the North to stop its nuclear work.

Seoul, which wants an apology after North Korea's deadly shelling of a South Korean island off disputed waters in November, said Pyongyang's call for talks was an empty gesture.

"North Korea previously issued statements like this early in the year ... they are normally done as part of (a) propaganda campaign toward the South," a Unification Ministry official said.

"We do not consider this is as a serious proposal for dialogue. It is not even in the correct and appropriate format."

The artillery fire, and the March 2010 sinking of a South Korean ship blamed on the North despite its denials, have raised tension in Asia and increased the pressure to resume talks.

Washington, which is urging Beijing to rein in its ally North Korea, has sent its envoy Stephen Bosworth to Asia for talks. He is in China on Thursday and will be in Japan on Friday.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara repeated that North Korea must cease its provocative behavior for progress to be made in calming tensions.

Analysts say Pyongyang's military aggression and unveiling of a previously-undisclosed nuclear enrichment facility are ways of raising the stakes ahead of potential six-party talks, a forum in which it has previously won substantial aid.

"Both sides had a deep exchange of views on the situation on the Korean peninsula and on the six-party talks," China's Foreign Ministry said after Bosworth met with officials.

"Both sides agreed to continue working hard to maintain peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and to push forward the six-party talk process."

Although both Koreas have called for dialogue to solve the crisis, the South, like Washington, is loath to be seen rewarding the North's actions with the talks and concessions it desires.

TALKS OR TENSIONS?

"Whether this (North-South) exchange is a sincere step back from the brink or simply a pause before a new round of tension is still uncertain," Abraham Kim and Jack Pritchard from the Korea Economic Institute wrote in a note.

"It is not the first time for Pyongyang to be more reconciliatory after a series of provocations."

Pyongyang walked out of the aid-for-disarmament talks with the South, United States, Russia, Japan and China in 2008. It then expelled U.N. atomic monitors and had a second nuclear test.

Pyongyang's offer for talks was run on the North's official KCNA news agency which said the statement, in an unusual step, was issued collectively by the North's government, the ruling Workers' Party of Korea and other organizations.

"We call for an unconditional and early opening of talks between the authorities having real power and responsibility," the statement said.

The South Korean official said the North was using the statement for domestic purposes and that Pyongyang needed to convince the outside world that it was serious.

"The North needs to show, not simply by making offers for dialogue, that it is genuine in its intentions, in the wake of the series of events that have taken place."

The United States suggested the North must first stop provoking its neighbor, recommit to a 2005 nuclear pact and take responsibility for recent attacks.

"We are determined to move forward, to end the provocative behavior, and to once again focus on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," Clinton said on Thursday.

"What is important is for the DPRK (North Korea) to take concrete actions with sincerity, with good faith," Japan's Maehara said, adding that if North Korea took demonstrable steps there would be "no reason to reject" a resumption of the six-party dialogue.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he planned to discuss North Korea, along with other issues including Iran, when he visited China from Jan 9-12.

"I think expanding that dialogue is really important," Gates said.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn and Phil Stewart in Washingtohn, Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Daniel Magnowski and Paul Simao)