(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; COMBINES story with slug 'NK leader-PyeongChang Olympics')
SEOUL, Jan. 1 (Yonhap) -- North Korea is willing to send a delegation to the upcoming PyeongChang Olympics to be held in South Korea, its leader said in his New Year's message Monday.
Kim Jong-un's remarks came as a surprise as Seoul is pinning hopes on the North's participation in the games because the South believes that the move could help ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
"The Winter Games to be held in South Korea will be a good occasion for the country. We sincerely hope that the Winter Olympics will be a success," Kim said in his speech broadcast by the state-run TV station.
"We are prepared to take various steps, including the dispatch of the delegation," he said.
The leader also said that the North is open to talks with South Korea to discuss its participation in the games. South Korea will host the Winter Games in PyeongChang, 180 kilometers east of Seoul, from Feb. 9-25. The Paralympics will be held from March 9-18.
President Moon Jae-in proposed to the United States to delay their joint annual military drills that could coincide with the games. The North has long denounced the exercises as a war rehearsal and used it as an excuse for its provocations.
"This year marks the 70th anniversary of the North Korean regime's establishment, and the South will host the Winter Games. This year holds significance for the two Koreas," Kim said.
The North's ruler cast a somewhat conciliatory gesture toward South Korea, but he warned that the U.S. cannot go against Pyongyang.
North Korea intensified its provocative acts last year in defiance of international condemnation. It conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September and launched intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) three times.
Kim said that his country's nuclear capabilities are a strong deterrence against the U.S., saying that a button for nuclear weapons is always placed on his desk.
"We achieved the goal of completing our state nuclear force in 2017," Kim reaffirmed. "We need to mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles and accelerate their deployment."
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