North Korea called for an end of hostile relations with the United States in a New Year's message and said it was committed to making the Korean peninsula nuclear-free through negotiations.
At the same time, a Tokyo-based pro-North Korean newspaper indicated that the leaders of North and South Korea could hold a summit this year, citing Pyongyang's strong commitment to improve relations with Seoul.
Communist North Korea has long demanded that Washington end hostility toward its government, and said it developed nuclear weapons to deter a U.S. attack. Washington has repeatedly said it has no intention of invading the country.
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The New Year statement brightened prospects for North Korea to rejoin stalled international talks on ending its nuclear weapons programs in exchange for aid and other concessions. Washington has sought to coax it to return to the talks, which also include South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.
The North has often said it wants to replace a cease-fire that ended the 1950-53 Korean War with a peace treaty and forge diplomatic relations with the U.S. as a way to win security guarantees — demands Washington says should be linked to North Korea's verifiable denuclearization.
"The fundamental task for ensuring peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in the rest of Asia is to put an end to the hostile relationship" between North Korea and the U.S., the North said Friday in the New Year statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, state radio and television.
North Korea's traditional New Year's Day statements are examined for clues to its policies. This year's statement said it is committed to establishing "a lasting peace system on the Korean peninsula and make it nuclear-free through dialogue and negotiations."
The U.S. and North Korea agreed on the need to resume the nuclear negotiations during a trip by President Barack Obama's special envoy to Pyongyang in December, but North Korea did not make a firm commitment on when it would rejoin the talks.
Last year, North Korea quit the disarmament talks and conducted a nuclear test, drawing widespread condemnation and tighter U.N. sanctions.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the private Sejong Institute security think tank, said North Korea is likely to maintain its conciliatory approach toward the U.S.
"The North extended an olive branch to the U.S.," Cheong said, adding that he expects the two sides will agree to set up a liaison office as a symbolic move to end their hostilities.
But Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, said despite North Korea's willingness to talk with the U.S., it is unlikely to surrender its nuclear program or make any other important concessions.
The North Korean statement said it remains committed to improving relations with South Korea, and urged the South to refrain from actions that might aggravate tensions.
"Unshakable is our stand that we will improve the north-south relations," said the statement.
The Tokyo-based Choson Sinbo newspaper, considered a mouthpiece for North Korea's government, suggested in a report late Friday the possibility of an inter-Korean summit this year.
The two Koreas held their first summit in 2000 between then-President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The second summit was held in 2007 between then-President Roh Moo-hyun and Kim.
The two sides held a secret meeting in October in Singapore and two follow-up meetings in November at a North Korean border town to discuss setting up a summit between South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Kim, Yonhap news agency said last month, citing unidentified sources.
North Korea has tried to reach out to Seoul and Washington since last summer in an about-face that analysts and officials say shows the North feels the pain of U.N. sanctions.
In South Korea on Friday, about 70 conservative activists tied tens of thousands of leaflets condemning Kim Jong Il to balloons and launched them across the border into the North. Some protesters also burned large North Korean flags with Kim's picture printed on them.
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