North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made a dramatic shift in his approach to Seoul on Tuesday as he called for direct talks in an apparent bid to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States, its key ally.
The isolated dictator said he hoped the two Koreas could meet "immediately" as the south prepared to host the Winter Olympics in Peyongchang, but warned he had no intentions of backing down over his nuclear weapons strategy.
"The Winter Games to be held in South Korea will be a good occasion for the country", Mr Kim said in a speech televised by state-run media on Monday.
"We sincerely hope that the Winter Games will be a success", he added. "We are willing to take various steps, including the dispatch of the delegation…to this end, the two Koreas can immediately meet."
That offer was tempered by the North Korean dictator’s insistence that he would not scale back production of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.
President Donald Trump was asked to respond to the message as he arrived in a tuxedo at his new year’s eve party at his Mar-a-Lago resort. "We’ll see, we’ll see," he said.
It came as a former top US official said he believed a nuclear war with North Korea was "closer than ever" and that he could not see any diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, said: "We’re actually closer, in my view, to a nuclear war with North Korea and in that region than we have ever been. I don’t see the opportunities to solve this diplomatically at this particular point."
Analysts told the Telegraph they suspected an ulterior motive to the dictator’s request for talks with the south, which was unexpected as the regime has previously ignored appeals from South Korean president Moon Jae-in.
Mr Moon’s approach to the North Korean crisis has been markedly different to the hard-line stance adopted by Mr Trump.
The South Korean leader is more aligned with Russia and China, in that he believes the stand-off can be resolved through talks, whereas the US president has threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea and "fire and fury."
Meanwhile South Korea’s National Security Strategy said it suspected the north was only using its attendance at the Winter Olympics for political leverage.
"In exchange for that [attendance], it cannot be ruled out that it would demand Seoul lift economic sanctions against it and resume economic cooperative projects and humanitarian aid," it said in a report.
Rah Jong-yil, a former diplomat and head of South Korean intelligence, said he did not believe "at all" that Mr Kim was offering an olive branch.
"If talks do go ahead, then I expect North Korea to demand that joint US-South Korean military exercises that are scheduled to take place at the same time as the Winter Games be delayed or even cancelled entirely," he told The Telegraph.
The South Korean people were desperate for a peaceful solution to the crisis, which has overshadowed their lives since the Korean War broke out in 1950, and were likely to support that request, he added.
But Washington may be irritated if any concessions on security had to be made as a condition for the talks as it risks driving a wedge between president Donald Trump and Mr Moon.
Mr Rah also stressed that the North Korean dictator does not want a peaceful solution to the nuclear crisis as it would endanger the survival of his regime.
"North Korea cannot survive peace", he said. "The regime in Pyongyang can only continue to survive on stresses and confrontation with its neighbours. Peace would bring Mr Kim down.
The new year’s address of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un featured the alarming claim that he keeps a "nuclear button" on his desk.
As he warned the United States that the regime’s nuclear programme was nearing completion, Mr Kim said: "The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, a nuclear button is always on my desk. This is reality, not a threat."
The bold claim is unlikely to be true, however, as by his own admission the warheads and missiles are yet to be deployed.
He added: “This year, we should focus on mass-producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment. These weapons will be used only if our society is threatened.”
Instead the remark is likely to be aimed at intimidating president Trump, who has disparagingly referred to Mr Kim as " little Rocket Man"
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