SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea and the United States will keep enforcing U.N. sanctions against North Korea, a South Korean official said Monday, despite a series of gestures by the communist nation aimed at reducing tensions with the rival South.
North Korea has significantly softened its stance toward the South in recent weeks, freeing a South Korean worker it held for more than four months, agreeing to lift restrictions on border crossings, and pledging to resume suspended joint projects and the reunion of families separated during the Korean War.
In a gesture to the United States, Pyongyang released two American journalists following a trip to the North by former President Bill Clinton.
Still, Washington has kept up pressure on Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear programs, sending a senior official to Asia to seek support for stringent implementation of the U.N. sanctions meant to punish the North for its May 25 nuclear test.
North Korea's top military officer, meanwhile, threatened Monday to retaliate against sanctions and possible provocations by South Korea and the U.S.
"The unchanged position of our military and people is that we respond to sanctions with merciless retaliation and confrontation with full-fledged confrontation," Ri Yong Ho, chief of the military's general staff, said in a speech carried by the Korean Central Broadcasting Station.
Using the country's trademark rhetoric, Ri told a gathering in Pyongyang of military personnel that the North would inflict "merciless, immediate and annihilating strikes" against South Korea and the U.S. if provoked, and claimed they were preparing to attack the country. North Korea regularly accuses Washington and Seoul of plotting a nuclear assault.
On Monday, U.S. envoy Philip Goldberg met in Seoul with the South's chief nuclear negotiator and said a complete, verifiable denuclearization of North Korea is "certainly our goal," and the U.N. sanctions resolution "very much lays that out."
He told reporters the overall goal is "to bring about a return to denuclearization and end to those missile programs that are violations not just of the U.N. resolutions but also of the previous commitments made by North Korea" during international disarmament talks.
Goldberg said he does not believe the U.N. sanctions will affect joint tourism projects between the two Koreas, and that it "will be a good thing" if a reduction in inter-Korean tension helps efforts to rid North Korea of nuclear programs.
Seoul's Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young said South Korea and the U.S. are in agreement that they won't change their stance on North Korea and will keep implementing sanctions unless there is a "fundamental change" in Pyongyang's attitude about denuclearization.
"We are sticking to our existing position that we will continue faithfully carrying out U.N. resolutions while urging North Korea to return to six-party talks" on its nuclear programs, Moon told reporters.
Separately, South Korean newspapers reported Monday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il sent word via an envoy that he wants to hold a summit with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak — a significant about-face by a nation that has heaped harsh criticism on Lee for his hard-line stance toward Pyongyang.
Lee's office quickly denied the reports, saying the president and North Korean envoy held general discussions on improving relations between the two sides during a meeting Sunday, but nothing related to a summit was discussed.
Kim Jong Il's envoy, senior ruling Workers' Party official Kim Ki Nam, visited Seoul as part of a six-member delegation over the weekend to pay respects for late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. The group included Pyongyang's spy chief, Kim Yang Gon, who is also in charge of inter-Korean affairs.
On Sunday, they had "serious and amicable" talks with Lee, the president's spokesman said.
On Monday, the mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported the North's envoy proposed a summit, and Lee told the envoy he would be open to one if it is to discuss North Korea's nuclear program. The paper cited an unidentified government official. Another leading newspaper, the JoongAng Ilbo, carried a similar report.
Relations between the two Koreas frayed badly since Lee took power early last year, linking aid to the North to its progress on disarmament. Pyongyang reacted angrily and several joint projects instituted under previous administrations were set back.
The sides had their first-ever summit in 2000 between then President Kim Dae-jung and the North's Kim Jong Il. The North's leader held a second summit with the South in 2007 with late South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.
The two Koreas are technically in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.