North Korea changes tack and tells US: Let's talk

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — After months of threatening to wage a nuclear war, North Korea did an about-face Sunday and

issued a surprise proposal to the United States, its No. 1 enemy: Let's talk.

But the invitation from North Korea's National Defense Commission, the powerful governing body led by leader Kim Jong Un,

comes with caveats: No preconditions and no demands that Pyongyang give up its prized nuclear assets unless Washington is

willing to do the same — ground rules that make it hard for the Americans to accept.

Washington responded by saying that it is open to talks — but only if North Korea shows it will comply with U.N. Security

Council resolutions and live up to its international obligations.

"As we have made clear, our desire is to

have credible negotiations with the North Koreans, but those talks must

involve North

Korea living up to its obligations to the world, including

compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions, and ultimately

result in denuclearization," U.S. National Security Council

spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement. "We will judge

North Korea by its actions, and not its words and look forward to

seeing steps that show North Korea is ready to abide by

its commitments and obligations."

North Korea's call for "senior-level" talks between the Korean War foes signals a shift in policy in Pyongyang after months

of acrimony.

Pyongyang ramped up the anti-American

rhetoric early this year after its launch of a long-range rocket in

December and a nuclear

test in February drew tightened U.N. and U.S. sanctions. Posters

went up across the North Korean capital calling on citizens

to "wipe away the American imperialist aggressors," slogans that

hadn't been seen on city streets in years.

The U.S. and ally South Korea countered the provocations and threats by stepping up annual springtime military exercises,

which prompted North Korea to warn of a "nuclear war" on the Korean Peninsula.

But as tensions began subsiding in May and June, Pyongyang began making tentative, if unsuccessful, overtures to re-establish

dialogue with Seoul and Washington.

Earlier this month, it proposed high-level talks with South Korea — the first in six years. But plans for two days of meetings

last week in Seoul dramatically fell apart even before they began amid bickering over who would lead the two delegations.

Meanwhile, the virulent anti-American

billboards plastered across the city were taken down. And on Sunday, as

scores of people

fanned out across Pyongyang to help carry out the latest urban

renewal projects in the capital — landscaping and construction

— the National Defense Commission issued a statement through state

media proposing talks with the U.S. to ease tensions and

discuss a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War.

North Korea fought against U.S.-led United Nations and South Korean troops during the three-year Korean War in the early 1950s,

and Pyongyang does not have diplomatic relations with either government. The Korean Peninsula remains divided by a heavily

fortified border.

Reunifying the peninsula was a major goal of

North Korea's two late leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and is a

legacy

inherited by current leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea is expected

to draw attention to Korea's division in the weeks leading

up to the 60th anniversary in July marking the close of the Korean

conflict, which ended in an armistice. A peace treaty has

never been signed formally ending the war.

Across Pyongyang, signboards at construction sites are marked with a countdown to July 27, giving laborers a deadline for

retiling the roof of the People's Palace of Culture, renovating the Korean War museum, and planting trees and grass meant

to beautify the city for the milestone anniversary.

For the nation's leaders, July 27 may well be their deadline for drawing the United States to the negotiating table to discuss

a peace treaty.

But for Washington, there will be no talks just for talks' sake, officials say.

Speaking on CBS television's "Face the Nation" show Sunday, President Barack Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said

Washington has been "quite clear" that officials support dialogue and have engaged Pyongyang in talks in the past.

But "those talks have to be real. They have

to be based on them living up to their obligations, to include on

proliferation,

on nuclear weapons, on smuggling and other things," he said. "And

so we'll judge them by their actions, not by the nice words

that we heard yesterday."

He said smooth talk will not help Pyongyang evade U.N. sanctions supported by Moscow and Beijing, North Korea's two traditional

allies. U.N. Security Council resolutions ban North Korea from developing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Earlier this year, Kim Jong Un enshrined the

drive to build a nuclear arsenal, as well as expand the economy, in

North Korea's

constitution. Pyongyang, estimated to have a handful of crude

nuclear devices, says it needs to build atomic weapons to defend

itself against what it sees as a U.S. nuclear threat in Korea and

the region.

The National Defense Commission reiterated its refusal to give up its nuclear ambitions until the entire Korean Peninsula

is free of nuclear weapons, a spokesman said in a statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency.

"The denuclearization of the Korean

Peninsula does not only mean 'dismantling the nuclear weapons of the

North'" but also

should involve "denuclearizing the whole peninsula, including

South Korea, and aims at totally ending the U.S. nuclear threats"

to North Korea, the spokesman said.

The U.S. denies having nuclear bombs in South Korea, saying they were removed in 1991. However, the U.S. military keeps nuclear

submarines in the region and has deployed them for military exercises with South Korea.

After blaming Washington for raising tensions by imposing "gangster-like sanctions" on North Korea, the spokesman called on

the U.S. to propose a venue and date for talks — but warned against setting preconditions.

Washington has been burned in the past by efforts to reach out to Pyongyang.

Months of behind-the-scenes negotiations yielded a significant food-for-disarmament deal in February 2012, but that was scuttled

by a failed North Korean long-range rocket launch just weeks later.