North Korea's foreign minister has a message for Americans: Stop your annual military exercises with South Korea and we'll stop threatening you with nuclear war.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong said that harsh international sanctions won't deter Pyongyang from continuing to expand its nuclear program.
"Stop the nuclear war exercises in the Korean peninsula, then we should also cease our nuclear tests," Ri told AP on Saturday.
Ri added that Pyongyang was forced to develop nuclear weapons, as self-defense in response to United States aggression.
North Korea yesterday announced Sunday that it had test-fired a ballistic missile from one of its submarines on Saturday, calling the launch a "great success" that provided "one more means for powerful nuclear attack."
President Barack Obama said he didn't take the the minister's offer of a quid-pro-quo agreement seriously, adding that if Pyongyang wants to seriously talk about denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, the US would be game.
"That's not something that happens based on a press release in the wake of a series of provocative behaviors," Obama said at a press conference Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "They're going to have to do better than that."
When South Korean and US troops began their large-scale military exercises in March — an annual opportunity to flaunt their special relationship, "forged in blood" — North Korea freaked out, called the drills "nuclear war moves" and threatened to respond with an all-out offensive. The exercises involved 17,000 American troops and more than 300,000 South Koreans.
In the event of an attack by US and South Korean forces, North Korea's National Defense Commission promised to "realize the greatest desire of the Korean nation through a sacred war of justice for reunification." The Korea's have been divided since the end of World War II, in 1945.
"If we continue on this path of confrontation, this will lead to very catastrophic results, not only for the two countries but for the entire world as well," Ri told AP. "It is really crucial for the United States government to withdraw its hostile policy against [North Korea] and as an expression of this, stop the military exercises, war exercises, in the Korean peninsula. Then we will respond likewise."
AP noted that Ri spoke calmly and used measured words "a contrast to the often bombastic verbiage used by the North's media." Ri described his proposal as "very logical."
Not long after Ri gave an exclusive interview to AP, his first western media outlet, news organizations across the world reported that North Korea appeared to have launched a ballistic missile test from a submarine.
State media said on Sunday that the test, which was conducted under the supervision of leader Kim Jong Un, was a "great success" and that it provided "one more means for powerful nuclear attack." But South Korean Defense Ministry official said the missile only flew for about 18 miles after it launched, and officials were trying to determine whether the launch was a failure.
KCNA, North Korea's state news outlet, quoted Kim Jong Un's response to the "successful" launch, who crowed that the "successful test-fire would help remarkably bolster the underwater operational capability of the [Korean People's Army)."
"It is now capable of hitting the heads of the South Korean puppet forces and the US imperialists any time as it pleases," Kim said via KCNA.
Ri said there was a direct correlation between the test-firing of a ballistic missile and the winding down of this year's US-South Korean military exercises. The latter have created a threatening climate, Ri contends, and Pyongyang was left with no option but to defend itself. "The escalation of this military exercise level has reached its top level. And I think it's not bad — as the other side is going for the climate — why not us, too, to that level as well?"
Last week, South Korean news outlet Dong-a Ilbo also reported that North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong said during the same visit to New York that Pyongyang was developing nuclear threats to cope with US military aggression. "We tried to hold a dialogue and make efforts through international law to remove nuclear threats, but we were left with only one choice, which is to respond to nukes with nukes," Ri said.
Saturday's ballistic test fire launch also comes ahead of a long-awaited Workers' Party of Korea congress, slated for early May. The ruling communist Workers' Party has not held a congress since 1980. Analysts say that Kim Jong-Un, 33, likely sees the congress as an opportunity to flaunt his leadership skills, and would probably carry out more militaristic provocations before May.
South Korea remained on high alert, fearing the possibility that their northern counterpart could conduct its fifth nuclear test "at any time" in defiance of stringent UN sanctions which were imposed after Pyongyang set off a hydrogen device in January.
According to United Press International (UPI), US and South Korean military surveillance captured movements at North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear site last week, indicating that Pyongyang might be preparing for its fifth nuclear test.
Local South Korean television network SBS, citing military officials, said that the test could happen as early as Saturday. According to surveillance footage and satellite imagery, a significant number of vehicles and other equipment had suddenly disappeared from the Punggye-ri site.
US and South Korean military also claim to have evidence that North Korea's army was blocking roads in Kilju, North Hamgyong Province, UPI reports, where a number of military facilities are believed to be located, including the Hwadae-ri atomic weapons training facility. A similar blockade occurred right before North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test earlier this year.
China ordered 2,000 troops to secure its North Korean border last week after receiving word about a possible impending nuclear test.
South Korean newspaper Dong-a Ilbo recently cited a study by Germany's Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, identifying the environmental impact of January's nuclear test. UPI, citing data from European satellites, reported that "the earth's surface sank nearly three inches in some areas after the test." Scientists used interferometrics to determine changes in surface movements in images surrounding the Punggye-ri nuclear site before and after the test.