SEOUL North Korea said on Monday it wants to reach a peace treaty quickly to replace the ceasefire that ended the 1950-53 Korean War in order to build trust with the United States and revive dormant nuclear disarmament talks.
But the White House made clear that North Korea must first resume long-stalled six-country nuclear negotiations, and the Obama administration's newly appointed point man for human rights in North Korea said ties can only improve once Pyongyang ends its systemic abuse of its citizens.
North Korea said a few weeks ago it was ready to end its year-long boycott of six-country nuclear talks, but analysts said the North may try to attach conditions to its return to the discussions among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
"If confidence is to be built between the DPRK (North Korea) and the U.S., it is essential to conclude a peace treaty for terminating the state of war, a root cause of the hostile relations, to begin with," the North's KCNA news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying.
"The removal of the barrier of such discrimination and distrust as sanctions may soon lead to the opening of the six-party talks."
The administrations of presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush have said Washington can discuss a peace treaty once the North ends its nuclear arms program, considered one of the biggest security risks to economically vital North Asia.
"The North Koreans are well aware of what they need to do to come back to ... six-party talks," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters, reiterating the U.S. position. "This isn't a step for us to take -- this is a step for the North Koreans to take ... in living up to those obligations."
HUMAN RIGHTS IN FOCUS
Isolated and impoverished North Korea has made similar calls before for a peace treaty, but few analysts feel it would ever give up its nuclear arms program that is the centerpiece of leader Kim Jong-il's "military first" rule.
North Korea, which was hit with fresh U.N. sanctions for a nuclear test in May 2009, may be trying to free up stalled support for its broken economy by returning to the sputtering disarmament-for-aid talks, analysts have said.
U.S.-led U.N. forces fighting on behalf of South Korea signed the ceasefire with North Korea and China that ended the Korean War. The two Koreas are technically still at war and position more than 1 million troops near their border.
Human rights have been a flash point in already tense ties between North Korea and the United States, but the issue has often been overshadowed by Washington's attempts to prod Pyongyang back to the nuclear talks.
"It is one of the worst places in terms of the lack of human rights. The situation is appalling," U.S. special envoy Robert King told reporters in Seoul on his first trip overseas since taking up the post about six weeks ago.
"A relationship with the United States and North Korea will have to involve human rights," King said.
The United States says North Korea maintains a network of political prisons where anyone thought to be associated with anything critical of Kim's rule can be jailed along with their families, who are deemed guilty by association.
The North uses arbitrary killings and stages public executions to intimidate the masses. It prevents free speech, controls all media and is thought to have ended nascent attempts at reform by executing or imprisoning those who oppose the state, according to the State Department.
(Editing by Nick Macfie and Mohammad Zargham)