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(3rd LD) N.K. willing to send delegation to PyeongChang Olympics: leader

All News 11:48 January 01, 2018

(ATTN: RECASTS lead; ADDS more details, info throughout)

SEOUL, Jan. 1 (Yonhap) -- North Korea is ready 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, raising expectations for an improvement in stalled inter-Korean ties.

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 ready to take various steps, including the dispatch of the delegation. To this end, the two Koreas can immediately meet," he said.

It marked the first expression of North Korea's intent to attend the Winter Olympics, which will be held in PyeongChang, 180 kilometers east of Seoul, from Feb. 9-25. The Paralympics will be held from March 9-18.

Kim's conciliatory message is likely to lend support to President Moon Jae-in who hopes to see more engagement with North Korea. South Korea proposed in July to have inter-Korean talks on easing military tensions and holding reunions of war-torn families, but the North has kept mum toward the offer.

The South Korean leader 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.

In contrast to his soft tone toward Seoul, the North's ruler warned that the U.S. cannot go against Pyongyang as it has a strong nuclear deterrence against it.

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.

North Korea announced the completion of nuclear armament after firing a new Hwasong-15 ICBM in November, which it says puts the whole U.S. mainland within range.

Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea heightened last year as U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim traded bellicose rhetoric and personal insults.

The U.S. has said that all options, including military action, are on the table though it prefers diplomacy to resolve North Korea's nuclear issue. Pyongyang has stressed that it will not put its nuclear weapons on the negotiation table.

Kim stressed that a button for nuclear weapons is always placed on his desk, warning that the U.S. should be aware that the North's nuclear force is a reality, not a threat.

"We need to mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles and accelerate their deployment," he said. "We should always keep readiness to take immediate nuclear counterattacks against the enemy's scheme for a nuclear war."

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, said that Kim expressed active willingness to improve inter-Korean ties based on confidence that his country has completed nuclear armament.

"The North's nuclear and missile threats are likely to continue and advance, as he ordered the mass-production and deployment of nukes and missiles," the researcher said. "South Korea will have to deeply think about how to balance the resolution of nuclear issues and an improvement of relations between the two Koreas."

This image, captured from North Korea's state TV station on Jan. 1, 2018, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivering his New Year's Day speech. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
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