"If we continue on this path of confrontation, this will lead to very catastrophic results, not only for the two countries but for the whole entire world as well," he said, speaking in Korean through an interpreter. "It is really crucial for the United States government to withdraw its hostile policy against the DPRK and as an expression of this stop the military exercises, war exercises, in the Korean Peninsula. Then we will respond likewise." DPRK is an abbreviation for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Ri, who spoke calmly and in measured words, a contrast to the often bombastic verbiage used by the North's media, claimed the North's proposal was "very logical."
He granted the interview in the country's diplomatic mission to the United Nations. He spoke beneath portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il, North Korea's two previous leaders — the grandfather and father of current leader Kim Jong Un.
If the exercises are halted "for some period, for some years," he added, "new opportunities may arise for the two countries and for the whole entire world as well."
Ri's comments to the AP came just hours after North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile from a submarine in its latest show of defiance as the U.S.-South Korea exercises wind down. He referred to the launch in the context of current tensions caused by the military exercises. "The escalation of this military exercise level has reached its top level. And I think it's not bad — as the other side is going for the climax — why not us, too, to that level as well?"
It is extremely rare for top North Korean officials to give interviews to foreign media, and particularly with Western news organizations.
Ri's proposal, which he said he hoped U.S. policymakers would heed, may well fall on deaf ears. North Korea, which sees the U.S.-South Korean exercises as a rehearsal for invasion, has floated similar proposals to Washington in the past, but the U.S. has insisted the North give up its nuclear weapons program first before any negotiations.
The result has been a stalemate that Ri said has put the peninsula at the crossroads of a thermonuclear war.
In Seoul, South Korea's Foreign Ministry released a statement Sunday that called the North's proposal "not worth considering." The ministry noted that the North's suggestion is nothing new, and said that the comment was just part of its maneuvering to wiggle out of the difficult situation created by stronger international sanctions.
In response to Ri's remarks, a U.S. State Department official defended the military exercises as demonstrating the U.S. commitment to its alliance with the South and said they enhance the combat readiness, flexibility and capabilities of the alliance.
"We call again on North Korea to refrain from actions and rhetoric that further raise tensions in the region and focus instead on taking concrete steps toward fulfilling its international commitments and obligations," said Katina Adams, a spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs.