A day after North Korea's foreign minister told The Associated Press that his country is ready to halt its nuclear tests if the United States suspends its annual military exercises with South Korea, President Barack Obama said Sunday that Washington isn't taking the proposal seriously and Pyongyang would "have to do better than that."
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong, interviewed Saturday by the AP, also defended his country's right to maintain a nuclear deterrent and warned that Pyongyang won't be cowed by international sanctions. And for those waiting for the North's regime to collapse, he had this to say: Don't hold your breath.
"Stop the nuclear war exercises in the Korean Peninsula, then we should also cease our nuclear tests," he said in his first interview Saturday with a Western news organization.
Obama dismissed North Korea's latest overture at a news conference Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Hannover, Germany.
"We don't take seriously a promise to simply halt until the next time they decide to do a test these kinds of activities," Obama said. "What we've said consistently ... is that if North Korea shows seriousness in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, then we'll be prepared to enter into some serious conversations with them about reducing tensions and our approach to protecting our allies in the region. But that's not something that happens based on a press release in the wake of a series of provocative behaviors. They're going to have to do better than that."
Obama also said that until North Korea does better, as he put it, the U.S. will continue to "emphasize our work with the Republic of Korea and Japan and our missile defense mechanisms to ensure that we're keeping the American people safe and we're keeping our allies safe."
Ri's interview with the AP came just hours after North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile from a submarine in its latest show of defiance as this year's U.S.-South Korea exercises wind down. He referred to the launch in the context of current tensions caused by the military exercises. "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 climax — why not us, too, to that level as well?"
The U.S. State Department said that in response to Saturday's launch, it was limiting the travel of Ri and his delegation to U.N. functions in New York, where they are attending a U.N. meeting on sustainable development. The U.S. noted "launches using ballistic missile technology are a clear violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions."
In his interview with the AP, Ri held firm to Pyongyang's longstanding position that the U.S. drove his country to develop nuclear weapons as an act of self-defense. At the same time, he suggested that suspending the military exercises with Seoul could open the door to talks and reduced tensions.
"If we continue on this path of confrontation, this will lead to very catastrophic results, not only for the two countries but for the whole entire world as well," he said, speaking in Korean through an interpreter. "It is really crucial for the United States government to withdraw its hostile policy against the DPRK and as an expression of this stop the military exercises, war exercises, in the Korean Peninsula. Then we will respond likewise." DPRK is an abbreviation for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Ri, who spoke calmly and in measured words, a contrast to the often bombastic verbiage used by the North's media, claimed the North's proposal was "very logical."
He granted the interview in the country's diplomatic mission to the United Nations. He spoke beneath portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il, North Korea's two previous leaders — the grandfather and father of current leader Kim Jong Un.
If the exercises are halted "for some period, for some years," he added, "new opportunities may arise for the two countries and for the whole entire world as well."
It is extremely rare for top North Korean officials to give interviews to foreign media, and particularly with Western news organizations.
Ri's proposal, which he said he hoped U.S. policymakers would heed, may well fall on deaf ears. North Korea, which sees the U.S.-South Korean exercises as a rehearsal for invasion, has floated similar proposals to Washington in the past, but the U.S. has insisted the North give up its nuclear weapons program first before any negotiations.
The result has been a stalemate that Ri said has put the peninsula at the crossroads of a thermonuclear war.
In Seoul, South Korea's Foreign Ministry released a statement Sunday that called the North's proposal "not worth considering." The ministry noted that the North's suggestion is nothing new, and said that the comment was just part of its maneuvering to wiggle out of the difficult situation created by stronger international sanctions.
In response to Ri's remarks, a U.S. State Department official defended the military exercises as demonstrating the U.S. commitment to its alliance with the South and said they enhance the combat readiness, flexibility and capabilities of the alliance.
"We call again on North Korea to refrain from actions and rhetoric that further raise tensions in the region and focus instead on taking concrete steps toward fulfilling its international commitments and obligations," said Katina Adams, a spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs.
Sanctions, Ri said, won't sway the North.
"If they believe they can actually frustrate us with sanctions, they are totally mistaken," he said. "The more pressure you put on to something, the more emotionally you react to stand up against it. And this is important for the American policymakers to be aware of."
Ri said the possibility of conflict has increased significantly this year because the exercises have taken on what Pyongyang sees as a more aggressive and threatening tone — including training to conduct precision "decapitation" strikes on North Korea's leadership.
This year's exercises are the biggest ever, involving about 300,000 troops. Washington and Seoul say they beefed up the maneuvers after North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test, in January, which also brought a new round of tough sanctions by the U.N. down on Pyongyang's head. The exercises are set to continue through the end of the month.
Pyongyang, meanwhile, has responded with a series of missile launches and statements in its media that the country has developed its long-range ballistic missile and nuclear warhead technologies to the point that they now present a credible deterrent and could even be used against targets on the U.S. mainland, though not all foreign analysts accept that claim.
In the interview, Ri stated that the United States has used its power to get other countries to join in pressure on North Korea.
"A country as small as the DPRK cannot actually be a threat to the U.S. or to the world," he told the AP. "How great would it be if the world were to say to the United States and the American government not to conduct any more military exercises in the Korean Peninsula ... But there is not a single country that says this to the U.S."
"These big countries alone or together are telling us that we should calm down," he said. "For us this is like a sentence, that we should accept our death and refuse our right to sovereignty."