North Korea called for an end of hostile relations with the United States in a New Year's message Friday and said it was committed to making the Korean peninsula nuclear-free through negotiations.
Communist North Korea has long demanded that Washington end hostility toward its government, and said it developed nuclear weapons to deter a U.S. attack. Washington has repeatedly said it has no intention of invading the country.
The New Year statement brightened prospects for North Korea to rejoin stalled international talks on ending its nuclear weapons programs in exchange for aid and other concessions. Washington has sought to coax it to return to the talks, which also include South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.
The North has often said it wants to replace a cease-fire that ended the 1950-53 Korean War with a peace treaty and forge diplomatic relations with the U.S. as a way to win security guarantees _ demands Washington says should be linked to North Korea's verifiable denuclearization.
"The fundamental task for ensuring peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in the rest of Asia is to put an end to the hostile relationship" between North Korea and the U.S., the North said in the New Year statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, state radio and television.
North Korea's traditional New Year's Day statements are examined annually for clues to its policies. This year's statement said it is committed to establishing "a lasting peace system on the Korean peninsula and make it nuclear-free through dialogue and negotiations."
The U.S. and North Korea agreed on the need to resume the nuclear negotiations during a trip by President Barack Obama's special envoy to Pyongyang in December, but North Korea did not make a firm commitment on when it would rejoin the talks.
Envoy Stephen Bosworth said he conveyed a message from Obama calling for a "complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula" and underlining Washington's willingness to help bring the isolated country back into the international fold.
North Korea quit the disarmament talks last year in anger over international criticism of a long-range rocket launch, which was denounced as a test of its missile technology. The regime then conducted a nuclear test in May, drawing widespread condemnation and tighter U.N. sanctions.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the private Sejong Institute security think tank, said North Korea is likely to maintain its conciliatory approach toward the U.S.
"The North extended an olive branch to the U.S.," Cheong said, adding that he expects the two sides will agree to set up a liaison office as a symbolic move to end their hostilities.
But Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, said despite North Korea's willingness to talk with the U.S., it is unlikely to surrender its nuclear program or make any other important concessions.
The North Korean statement said it remains committed to improving relations with South Korea, and urged the South to refrain from actions that might aggravate tensions.
Relations between the two Koreas soured after conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in early 2008 with a tougher policy on the North, and their navies engaged in a brief but bloody skirmish in November.
However, South Korea sent medicine to North Korea in December to help it fight swine flu _ the government's first humanitarian aid to the North since Lee took office.
The lengthy New Year statement also stressed the need to improve the people's living standard by accelerating the development of light industry and agriculture while calling for efforts to gain access to more foreign markets.
"When the people's living standards are decisively improved ... the gate to a prosperous nation (will) be opened," the statement quoted leader Kim Jong Il as saying.
North Korea has set 2012 _ the centenary of its late founder Kim Il Sung's birth _ as a goal for building a "great, prosperous and powerful country."
In South Korea, about 70 conservative activists tied tens of thousands of leaflets condemning Kim Jong Il to balloons and launched them across the border into the North. Some protesters also burned large North Korean flags with Kim's picture printed on them.