North Korea called Wednesday for "unconditional and early" talks with rival South Korea to put an end to months of tensions. Seoul quickly dismissed the offer as insincere and said it's waiting for an apology for two deadly attacks blamed on Pyongyang.
It's rare for North Korea to issue such a statement addressed to South Korea and it came as the U.S. envoy on the North was in the region to discuss the standoff. Earlier in the day, Stephen Bosworth sought to calm fears of conflict on the peninsula.
Tensions between the two Koreas have been at their highest level in years since North Korea showered artillery on a South Korean-held island near their disputed maritime border in November, killing four South Koreans. The attack was the first on a civilian area since the 1950-53 Korean War, and occurred in waters not far from the spot where a torpedo sank a South Korean warship eight months early, killing 46 sailors.
That attack was also blamed on the North - and allegation the country vehemently denies.
But the North has made some conciliatory moves recently. On New Year's Day, the government issued a lengthy statement calling for warmer ties and the resumption of joint projects with South Korea. Pyongyang, eager for food and fuel assistance, has said it wants stalled international aid-for-nuclear-disarmament talks to restart. Washington and Seoul have said the North must first fulfill past nuclear disarmament commitments.
On Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak vowed to increase his country's defenses but made clear the door was open for talks with Pyongyang and was willing to enhance economic cooperation between the rivals. On Wednesday, North Korean officials responded with their own call for negotiations.
"We are ready to meet anyone anytime and anywhere, letting bygones be bygones, if he or she is willing to go hands in hands with us," said a statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency. It added that history has shown that such confrontations can only lead to an "armed clash and war."
South Korea's Unification Ministry immediately rebuffed the overtures late Wednesday.
"We don't consider it as a sincere offer of dialogue," ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said. North Korea first must apologize for the two attacks and take "sincere" steps toward nuclear disarmament, she said.
North Korea denies involvement in the March sinking of the Cheonan warship, and blames the South for triggering the November artillery attack by ignoring warnings against conducting live-fire military drills from an island in waters Pyongyang considers its territory.
The Koreas remain in a state of war because their 1950s conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. Tens of thousands of tanks and troops guard their land border, the world's most heavily fortified.
However, North Korea disputes the western maritime border drawn by U.N. forces in 1953, and the Yellow Sea waters have been the site of several bloody skirmishes between the Koreas over the years.
The Nov. 23 attack on Yeonpyeong Island, just seven miles (11 kilometers) from North Korean shores but populated by South Korean troops as well as civilian fishing families, marked a serious escalation in the maritime clashes between the Koreas.
After weeks of warlike rhetoric and provocative military drills by both countries' militaries, however, Seoul and Pyongyang have indicated in recent days that peace talks may be possible.
Mr. Bosworth, meanwhile, met Wednesday with South Korean officials before heading to Beijing and Tokyo to discuss North Korea. Bosworth said on his arrival in the South on Tuesday that he was hopeful for "serious negotiations" soon on the North.
On Thursday, Mr. Bosworth is expected to ask China for insights into last month's talks in Pyongyang between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Beijing's top foreign policy official. China has come under growing pressure to push ally North Korea to change its behavior.
North Korea will be a key issue during Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington later this month.
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