NEW YORK — North Korea's foreign minister said Saturday in an interview with 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.
He also defended the country's right to maintain a nuclear deterrent and warned that North Korea 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.
Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong, in his first interview with a Western news organization, held firm to Pyongyang's long-standing position that the United States 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 at the country's diplomatic mission to the United Nations. "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 was in New York to participate in the signing of the Paris agreement on climate change at the United Nations. His comments came just hours after North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile from a submarine in its latest show of defiance as the 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?"
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 United State has insisted the North give up its nuclear weapons program before any negotiations.
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.
In other comments, Ri:
• Defended the jailing of an American university student for alleged antistate activities, but said he would inform authorities in Pyongyang there is concern in the United States over the fate of Otto Warmbier, 21.
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• Said North Korea is not encouraged by the thawing of relations between Washington and Cuba or Iran.