SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea proposed Monday that a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War be signed this year, saying a return to negotiations on its nuclear program depends on better relations with Washington and the lifting of sanctions.
Washington and Pyongyang have never had diplomatic relations because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, thus leaving the peninsula technically at war. North Korea, the U.S.-led United Nations Command and China signed a cease-fire, but South Korea never did.
The United States has resisted signing a treaty with North while it possesses nuclear weapons. Washington has said, however, that the subject can be discussed within the framework of six-nation negotiations aimed at ridding Pyongyang of atomic weapons. Those talks have not been held for more than a year.
But the North indicated Monday it won't rejoin the nuclear forum until talks begin on a peace treaty. The communist country pulled out of the nuclear talks last year to protest international sanctions imposed for its launch of a long-range missile.
South Korea is also suspicious of the North's calls for a peace treaty, calls for which Seoul has said are a tactic to delay its denuclearization.
The North's Foreign Ministry said in a statement the absence of a peace treaty is a "root cause of the hostile relations" with the U.S. The ministry called for a peace treaty to be signed this year, which it emphasized marks the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War.
"The conclusion of the peace treaty will help terminate the hostile relations between (North Korea) and the U.S. and positively promote the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula at a rapid tempo," the statement said.
The proposal comes after a landmark visit to North last month by Stephen Bosworth, Obama's special envoy for the country. Bosworth said after his trip that the North agreed on the necessity of returning to the talks, though the country has not said when it would rejoin them.
"This appears to be an overture by the North Koreans to try and, in their own way, break through the logjam that we have seen for more than a year now in the (six-party) talks," said Peter Beck, an expert on North Korea currently conducting research at Stanford University.
During the talks, North Korea had agreed to disarm in exchange for economic aid, security assurances and diplomatic recognition.
North Korea also suggested that the withdrawal of sanctions could lead to a speedy resumption of the talks.
"The removal of the barrier of such discrimination and distrust as sanctions may soon lead to the opening of the six-party talks," the North's statement said.
Robert King, Obama's special envoy for human rights in North Korea, harshly criticized the communist country Monday and said that the situation is preventing a normalization of relations.
"It's one of the worst places in terms of lack of human rights," King told reporters after meeting South Korea's foreign minister. "The situation is appalling."
He added, "Improved relations between the United States and North Korea will have to involve greater respect for human rights by North Korea."
North Korea holds some 154,000 political prisoners in six large camps across the country, according to South Korean government estimates. Pyongyang denies the existence of prison camps and often reacts strongly to foreign criticism regarding human rights.
Associated Press Writer Kelly Olsen contributed to this report.