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North Korea calls for unconditional talks with South

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SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea called Wednesday for “unconditional and early” talks with rival South Korea to put an end to months of tensions that it said would only lead to war. Seoul quickly dismissed the offer as insincere.

It’s rare for North Korea to issue such a statement addressed to South Korea and it came as the U.S. envoy on the North was in the region to discuss the standoff.

Tensions between the two Koreas have been at their highest level in years since North Korea showered artillery on a South Korean-held island near their maritime border in late November, killing four South Koreans. The attack was the first on a civilian area since the 1950-53 Korean War, and occurred in waters not far from the spot where a torpedo sank a South Korean eight months early, killing 46 sailors. That attack was also blamed on the North.

Just days after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak vowed to boost his country’s defenses but made clear the door was open for talks with Pyongyang, North Korean officials responded with their own call for negotiations.

“We are ready to meet anyone anytime and anywhere, letting bygones be bygones, if he or she is willing to go hands in hands with us,” said a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. It added that history has shown that such confrontation only lead to “armed clash and war.”

South Korea’s Unification Ministry immediately rebuffed the offer.

“We don’t consider it as a sincere dialogue offer,” ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said. She said the North must first apologize for the two attacks and take “sincere” steps toward its nuclear disarmament.

Both Seoul and Pyongyang have given recent indications that peace talks are possible, even after weeks of warlike rhetoric and military drills by both countries.

President Barack Obama’s envoy, Stephen Bosworth, met with South Korean officials on was in South Korea on Wednesday as part of a tour that also includes stops in China and Japan. In Seoul, he expressed hope for “serious negotiations” soon on North Korea.

The Korean peninsula remains in state of war because the 1950s conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

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