PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — The head of North Korea's parliament said Friday that his country wants to focus on improving its struggling economy and raising its standard of living, but can only do so if the United States abandons what he called a hostile policy toward Pyongyang.
Kim Yong Nam, head of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly and North Korea's de facto head of state, said economic growth is the top goal of the government under its new supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, who took over nearly two years ago after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. But he said such improvements can only be made once North Korea is confident it will not be attacked or ostracized by the United States.
"There wouldn't be any reason for us to be on bad terms with the United States if the U.S. government gives up its hostile policy and opts for a policy change of respecting our sovereignty and right to selection," he said in a meeting in Pyongyang with Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press.
Although the United States has repeatedly offered assurances to North Korea that it has no intention of attacking, Pyongyang has long demanded that it remove the tens of thousands of American troops stationed in South Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. That means the countries remain technically at war.
North Korea says it wants a formal peace treaty and all of the U.S. troops removed from the South, and Kim reiterated that position on Friday. But North Korea continues to develop a nuclear weapons program and long-range missiles of its own. The United States has responded by backing strict sanctions against Pyongyang and has shunned direct talks, while North Korea's economy has lagged far behind its Asian neighbors.
Tensions between the two nations heightened dramatically after North Korea conducted its third nuclear test and launched a rocket earlier this year, and the United States and South Korea conducted their annual spring military exercises. North Korea's rhetoric has since cooled somewhat, but Kim suggested the ball is now in Washington's court.
North Korea wants to improve its economy, but "for this we need a peaceful environment," he said. "We need to secure peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula."
Kim, a former foreign minister who is seen as the North's senior statesman, also accused South Korean authorities of "divisive maneuvers" that have pushed the two Koreas into another cycle of confrontation.
North Korea last month indefinitely postponed reunions of families separated by the Korean War that had been set to begin within days, a setback after weeks of improving ties. Pyongyang was vague about its decision to cancel the reunions, which have not been held for three years. It accused unidentified conservatives in Seoul of a "reckless and vicious confrontation racket" against Pyongyang, a claim it routinely makes.
It also vowed, in similarly familiar rhetoric, to "take strong and decisive counteractions against the South Korean puppet regime's ever-escalating war provocations."
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula had been gradually easing, with the North dialing down its war rhetoric and seeking to restart various cooperation projects with South Korea. The biggest step has been the recent return of North and South Koreans to a jointly run factory park just across the border in North Korea after a five-month shutdown.