The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, told reporters on Tuesday that the US would only start taking talks between North and South Korea seriously when the North showed a commitment to denuclearization.
"North Korea can talk to anyone they want, but the US is not going to recognize it or acknowledge it until they agree to ban the nuclear weapons that they have," she said.
On Tuesday, South Korea offered talks with North Korea starting next week. North Korea did not immediately react to the proposal. It would be the first such dialogue since a vice-ministerial meeting in December 2015.
"We consider this to be a very reckless regime. We don't think we need a Band-Aid and we don't think we need to smile and take a picture," Haley said.
Haley added that the US had been hearing reports that North Korea might be preparing to fire another missile test, although gave no details.
"I hope that doesn't happen. But if it does, we must bring even tougher measures to bear against the North Korean regime," she said.
One US official told Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity that there were indications pointing toward a potential missile launch "sooner rather than later."
Talks on the table
South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon said Tuesday the offer for high-level talks next Tuesday had been discussed with the United States. He suggested they focus on North Korea's participation at the Olympics but also address the denuclearization of North Korea.
"I repeat: The government is open to talking with North Korea, regardless of time, location and form," Cho said.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year's Day speech that he was "open to dialogue" with Seoul. He also said his country would push ahead with "mass producing" nuclear warheads, in defiance of UN sanctions. He added that he had a nuclear button on his desk capable of launching missiles at the United States.
Trump later countered on Twitter that he also had a nuclear button on his desk and that it was "much bigger & more powerful."
South Korean President Moon Jae-in welcomed Kim's New Year address, but said an improvement in inter-Korean relations "cannot go separately with resolving North Korea's nuclear program."
Trump reserves judgment
US President Donald Trump, who has sought to pressure North Korea through sanctions to give up development of nuclear weapons capable of hitting the US, reserved judgment on Pyongyang's offer to talk, saying on Twitter:
"Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not - we will see!"
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said North Korea might be "trying to drive a wedge of some sort" between the US and South Korea. "We are very skeptical of Kim Jong Un's sincerity in sitting down and having talks."
"The US is committed and will still continue to put maximum pressure on North Korea to change and make sure that it denuclearizes the peninsula," White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. "Our goals are the same and we share that with South Korea."
China backs talks
China, which has urged a return to talks, said the comments from North and South Korea were a positive development.
"China welcomes and supports North Korea and South Korea taking earnest efforts to treat this as an opportunity to improve mutual relations, promote the alleviation of the situation on the Korean peninsula and realize denuclearization on the peninsula," Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
jbh/sms (Reuters, AFP, AP)