SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said Monday that it is open to new dialogue to defuse tensions over its nuclear weapons program in what appeared to be a call for direct talks with the United States.
The statement from Pyongyang's Foreign Ministry marks a rare expression of willingness to talk by a regime that has rapidly escalated tensions with a flurry of provocations in recent months, including a nuclear test and a series of missile launches.
It also suggests that the isolated communist regime thinks it has raised its stakes enough, and it's time to negotiate.
On Monday, North Korea made clear again that it won't return to six-nation nuclear talks involving China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the U.S., saying the forum seeks only to "disarm and incapacitate" the nation.
But it added, "There is a specific and reserved form of dialogue that can address the current situation."
The statement did not elaborate on the new form of dialogue. But Pyongyang has long been known to be seeking direct negotiations with Washington.
On Friday, North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, Sin Son Ho, also indicated the regime's interest in bilateral negotiations, saying the country is "not against a dialogue," according to Japan's Kyodo News agency.
North Korea's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper also said Sunday that the country's envoy told an Asian security conference in Thailand last week that the nuclear standoff was a matter only between Pyongyang and Washington.
The United States says it is willing to hold direct talks with the North within the six-nation process if it returns to the negotiating table and takes irreversible steps for denuclearization.
On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on NBC television's "Meet the Press" that "the six-party talk framework, which had everybody included, is the appropriate way to engage with North Korea."
Clinton also said North Korea doesn't have any friends left.
North Korea quit the six-nation talks in April in anger over a U.N. rebuke of its long-range rocket launch. It has since further ratcheted up tensions with its second nuclear test on May 25 and a series of banned ballistic missile launches earlier this month.
The U.N. Security Council adopted a tough sanctions resolution to punish Pyongyang last month.
Washington has been rallying international support for stringent enforcement of the sanctions, and Clinton praised China – the North's main ally and benefactor – for being "extremely positive and productive" in pressuring Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program.
"On North Korea, we've been extremely gratified by their forward-leaning commitment to sanctions and the private messages that they have conveyed to the North Koreans," Clinton said Sunday on NBC.
On Monday, South Korea blacklisted five North Korean officials, four companies and a state agency in line with the U.N. sanctions.
The sanctions include travel bans and a freeze on the financial assets against those blacklisted, but the move is largely symbolic because the firms don't do business with South Korea and the officials don't travel to the South.
North Korea has bristled at the talk of sanctions. Its defense chief threatened Sunday that the country will "mercilessly and resolutely counter the enemy's sanctions with retaliation."
Defense Minister Kim Yong Chun also vowed to deal "unimaginably deadly blows" to the United States and South Korea if they attack the communist nation, according to Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency.
Kim spoke at a national meeting on the eve of the anniversary of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
North Korea often accuses Washington and Seoul of plotting to invade the nation. Pyongyang says its pursuit of atomic bombs are to defend against what it calls "U.S. nuclear threats."
Washington and Seoul have disavowed any intention of invading the North and say their military drills are purely defensive.
The divided Korean peninsula is still technically in a state of war because the 1953 cease-fire has never been converted into a peace treaty.