SEOUL North Korea offered the United States and South Korea a list of conditions on Thursday for talks, including the lifting of U.N. sanctions, signaling a possible end to weeks of warlike hostility on the Korean peninsula.
The North Korea's top military body also said in a statement the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula would begin when the United States removed nuclear weapons that the isolated state says Washington has deployed in the region.
The move was likely a sop to the North's only major backer, China, which has signaled its growing unease over the escalation of threats, and which said later on Thursday that talks were the only correct way to end the tension.
"Dialogue and war cannot co-exist," the North's National Defence Commission said in the statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.
"If the United States and the puppet South have the slightest desire to avoid the sledge-hammer blow of our army and the people ... and truly wish dialogue and negotiations, they must make the resolute decision," it said.
The United States has offered talks, but on the pre-condition that they lead to North Korea abandoning its nuclear weapons ambitions. North Korea deems its nuclear arms a "treasured sword" and has vowed never to give them up.
Nevertheless, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who ended a trip to the region early this week that was dominated by concern about North Korea, stressed his interest in a diplomatic solution.
South Korea which is conducting military exercises with U.S. forces to the anger of North Korea, has also proposed talks, a move that Pyongyang rejected as insincere.
North Korea stepped up its defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions in December when it launched a rocket that it said put a scientific satellite in orbit. Critics said the launch was aimed at nurturing the kind of technology needed to deliver a nuclear warhead mounted on a long-range missile.
That was followed in February by its third test of a nuclear weapon. That triggered new U.N. sanctions in March, sharply toughening existing measures, which in turn led to a dramatic intensification of North Korean threats of nuclear strikes against South Korea and the United States.
The North's military commission said U.N. Security Council sanctions, "fabricated with unjust reasons" must be withdrawn.
"They should bear in mind that doing so would be a token of good will towards the DPRK," it said. The North's official name is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"The denuclearization of the Korean peninsula can begin with the removal of the nuclear war tools dragged in by the U.S. and it can lead to global nuclear disarmament," it added.
South Korea saw the demands as "regretful" and "cliched" and it called on North Korea to withdraw them, a government official told reporters, the South's Yonhap news agency reported.
NO "OLD ROAD"; "CORRECT PATH"
The North's commission also called for an end to military exercises such as the annual U.S.-South Korean drills that began in early March and are due to run until the end of April.
"Frequent nuclear war maneuvers will only strain the situation and totally block the way of dialogue."
North Korea has a long record of making threats to secure concessions from the United States and South Korea, only to repeat the process later. Both the United States and the South said this week that the cycle must cease.
"Let me just make it clear, I have no desire as secretary of state and the president has no desire to do the same horse trade or go down the old road," Kerry said in Washington on Wednesday.
He stressed the importance of China in influencing North Korea, and said he had made that point in talks in Beijing last week.
"We had that discussion and we agreed, in the very next days now, to engage in an ongoing process by which we work out exactly how we're going to proceed so that it is different. That's our goal and I can assure you I want to reach it," Kerry said.
China, which sided with North Korea in the 1950-53 civil war against the U.S.-backed South, has always been reluctant to apply pressure on Pyongyang, fearing instability if the North were to implode and send floods of refugees into China. It has also looked askance at U.S. military drills in South Korea.
China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said it was in everyone's interests to see the denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula.
"We believe that dialogue and consultation is the only correct way to resolve matters," she said.
"The most pressing task is to step up diplomatic efforts and return as soon as possible to the correct path of dialogue and consultation."
(Editing by Robert Birsel and Raju Gopalakrishnan)