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North Korea hints at openness to talks

SEOUL, South Korea -- Government officials and security analysts say North Korea is scaling back its campaign of threats and showing signs it wants to ease tensions with South Korea and the United States.

That assessment, gaining credence among policymakers in recent days, does not mean the North will soon agree to talks or that the long-term threat posed by its weapons program has been reduced. But officials say they are encouraged by a shift in Pyongyang's rhetoric in the past week, which, though still venomous, includes hints about reconciliation.

"The tensions should gradually decrease from here, but we cannot lose ourselves" to complacency, a South Korean Defense Ministry official said. "We do still have to be prepared for any provocations."

Dialogue will be difficult, because Washington and Pyongyang are fundamentally at odds over what must happen first. Yesterday, the North issued a statement laying out its conditions for talks, including the lifting of UN sanctions and the removal of all U.S. nuclear assets from the region. The United States, which has already rejected such steps, instead wants Pyongyang to live up to pre-existing disarmament agreements.

Secretary of State John Kerry said North Korea's preconditions are "not acceptable," but he appeared to welcome the glimmer of interest in talks.

"I'm prepared to look at that as, you know, at least a beginning gambit," he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Analysts say it's noteworthy that Pyongyang is even raising the possibility of talks, given its recent pledge of nuclear annihilation of the United States, South Korea, Japan and Guam.

One question is whether the North will test-fire the midrange missiles that are positioned for launch on its eastern coast. Defense experts in Seoul had initially thought it would do so as part of its drive to raise tensions. Now they see several alternative scenarios: The North could shoot the missiles off as a symbolic show of victory to its people. It could also use them as a bargaining chip for talks.

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