US rejects NK offer of nuclear test moratorium

The US has brushed off North Korea's offer of a moratorium on nuclear tests if Washington shelves its planned military drills with Seoul this year, calling it an "implicit threat" and urging its sincere commitment to denuclearization.

The North's state media reported Saturday the country has delivered the proposal through an unspecified relevant channel, saying it is "ready to sit with the US anytime if the US needs dialogue regarding this issue."

"The message proposed the US to contribute to easing tension on the Korean Peninsula by temporarily suspending joint military exercises in South Korea and its vicinity this year, and said that in this case the DPRK (North Korea) is ready to take responsive steps such as temporarily suspending the nuclear test over which the US is concerned," the official Korean Central News Agency said.

"The large-scale war games ceaselessly held every year in South Korea are the root cause of the escalating tension on the peninsula and the danger of nuclear war facing our nation."

While leaving open the possibility of dialogue, Washington criticised Pyongyang for making an "implicit threat" by "inappropriately linking" routine, defence-oriented exercises dating back about 40 years to a potential new underground blast that would constitute a breach of multiple UN Security Council resolutions.

North Korea has detonated atomic devices three times since 2006, the latest and most powerful one in February 2013. It has threatened to conduct a "new form" of experiment after the council condemned its test-firing of a ballistic missile last March.

"We call on the DPRK to immediately cease all threats, reduce tensions, and take the necessary steps toward denuclearization needed to resume credible negotiations," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters later that day in Munich while accompanying Secretary John Kerry on his trip to India.

"The United States remains open to dialogue with the DPRK, with the aim of returning to credible and authentic negotiations on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

With some 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea, the allies' joint military drills have since their 1976 launch been a source of paranoia for the communist state, which calls it a rehearsal for an invasion. Some of their major annual programs ― Key Resolve and Foal Eagle ― are expected to kick off late next month.

The Minju Choson, another propaganda organ associated with the North Korean cabinet, on Sunday reiterated calls for Seoul to forsake the military exercises.

"War games and dialogue cannot be compatible," it said in a dispatch carried by the KCNA. "If the South is keen to truly improve inter-Korean relations through dialogue and negotiations and open a grand path to an independent unification, it has to stop all war schemes including reckless military drills with external forces."

The Kim Jong-un regime has been intensifying its peace offensive toward Seoul since he raised the possibility for "highest-level" bilateral talks in his New Year speech.

In contrast, Pyongyang is snared in a spat with Washington due to its suspected hack on Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. over a satirical film centering on an assassination plot against the young leader. A bill has since been introduced in US House of Representative calling for the unruly country to be relisted as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The Choson Sinbo, a pro-North newspaper based in Japan, once again refuted its involvement in the cyberattack on Sunday, pointing to a recent delivery of condolences by its Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong to his French counterpart over the Charlie Hebdo tragedy.

"Our constant position is that we oppose all kinds of terrors and any support for them," the paper said.

Entering its critical third year, the Park Geun-hye government is seeking to secure a foreign policy legacy through a cross-border reconciliation ahead of the 70th anniversary of the territorial division this year. Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae recently proposed high-level inter-Korean dialogue.

But a thaw appears far-off yet given a series of political hurdles. On top of the North Korea-US tension, anti-North Korea leaflets has emerged as a key sticking point in particular since a court ruling last week made way for authorities to block their releases.

Despite growing demands for action, Seoul remains hesitant about imposing any ban, citing freedom of expression.

A watershed moment may come at Park's news conference on Monday, experts say, where she is predicted to relay offers of humanitarian assistance or economic and people-to-people exchanges and other related messages toward Pyongyang.

"The conference is forecast to be an extremely important opportunity that will likely determine inter-Korean relations this year," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute.

"With the regime constantly suffering anxiety over a reunification by absorption by the South given economic inferiority and international isolation, it will be important for her to make it clear that her unification policy is not aimed at absorbing the North but bringing about a peaceful integration through expanding dialogue, exchanges and cooperation."