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North Korea pushes South Korea on military drills

North Korea on Friday urged a sceptical South Korea to respond to a recent series of trust-building gestures and again called on Seoul to cancel upcoming military drills with the United States.

SEOUL: North Korea on Friday urged a sceptical South Korea to respond to a recent series of trust-building gestures and again urged Seoul to cancel upcoming military drills with the United States.

The apparent olive branch came in the form of an open letter sent to South Korean authorities by the North's top military body on the orders of leader Kim Jong-Un proffering "reconciliation and unity".

Published by the North's official KCNA news agency, the letter built on a series of confidence-building proposals that South Korea has already dismissed as a "deceptive" propaganda exercise.

"What is important for paving a wide avenue for mending North-South relations is to make a bold decision to stop all hostile military acts, the biggest hurdle stoking distrust and confrontation," the letter from the National Defence Commission (NDC) said.

Later in the day, the North made a fresh proposal for the resumption of reunions for families separated since the Korean War, saying this could provide fresh momentum to improving cross-border ties.

The North suggested the South could choose a date for a family reunion event "at its convenience" after the the time of the Lunar New Year on January 31.

The South welcomed the new offer saying it would send its own proposal later for the date and other details on family reunions.

But Seoul has reacted more cautiously to the other reconciliatory steps offered by Pyongyang.

A week earlier, the NDC had sent several proposals, urging South Korea to cancel the joint exercises with the United States and offering a mutual moratorium on mud-slinging by the two rivals.

Seoul not only dismissed the overtures, but warned that Pyongyang may well be laying the ground for a military confrontation.

"Regretfully, the South Korean authorities still remain unchanged in their improper attitude and negative stand," the NDC letter said.

Reacting to the letter, the Defence Ministry warned of the "enemy's hidden motive", while Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-Jae said the North's stance was "full of inconsistencies".

Temperatures on the Korean peninsula traditionally rise ahead of the annual South Korean-US drills, which Pyongyang routinely condemns as a rehearsal for invasion.

Last year they coincided with an unusually sharp and protracted surge in tensions, which saw the North threatening pre-emptive nuclear strikes, and nuclear-capable US stealth bombers flying practice runs over the peninsula.

In its letter, the NDC stressed that its opposition lay solely in the participation of US forces in the exercises.

North Korea did not urge Seoul to stop ordinary military drills but wanted it to halt joint drills with the United States "for a war of aggression", it said.

The NDC said it had also taken the "unilateral" step of halting all cross-border "slandering", despite the South's dismissive response to its proposal a week ago.

The South's Unification Ministry had scoffed at the idea, arguing that the only "slander" was propagated by Pyongyang's propaganda machine.

In a rare press conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Friday, North Korea's UN ambassador Sin Son-Ho condemned the drills while reiterating calls to end provocation.

The envoy also suggested the planned war games should be moved to the United States.

"If the coordination and cooperation with the US are so precious and valuable, they had better hold the exercises in the secluded area or in the US, far away from the territorial land, sea and air of the Korean peninsula," he declared.

Many analysts have voiced scepticism over the North's recent charm offensive, noting its past proclivity for offering conciliatory gestures prior to an act of provocation.

Kim Yong-Hyun, a North Korean expert at Seoul's Dongguk University, said the North was pre-emptively seeking to shift the blame for any future confrontation by making South Korea appear intransigent.

"It wants the world to believe that the South is avoiding dialogue while the North is seeking to improve relations," Kim said.

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye says she is willing to hold a summit with Kim Jong-Un under the right conditions, but insists that a substantive dialogue can only begin when North Korea shows a tangible commitment to abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.

The NDC letter underlined the North's desire for denuclearisation, but argued that the real obstacle was South Korea.

"Before finding fault with the precious nuclear force for self-defence to which (North Korea) has access, they should make a bold decision to stop their dangerous acts of introducing outsiders' nukes," it said, referring again to the military exercises, which are set to begin late February.

Under its defence agreement with Washington, South Korea is protected by the US nuclear umbrella and the United States would assume overall operational command of joint US and South Korean forces if a full-scale conflict with the North broke out.

Millions of Koreans were left separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War, which sealed the peninsula's division. Most have died without having the chance to reunite with family members.

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