By Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha
SEOUL (Reuters) - The sister of North Korean leader, Kim Yo Jong, criticised ongoing military drills in South Korea and warned the new U.S. administration that the smell of cordite wafting over the border would not help bring peace, state news reported on Tuesday.
Kim's statement was the North's first public message to Washington since President Joe Biden took office in January. It was delivered a day before U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are due to arrive in Seoul for their first talks with South Korean counterparts.
"We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off powder smell in our land," Kim said in a statement carried by state news agency KCNA. "If it wants to sleep in peace for coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step."
For all the imagery of Kim's words, the joint springtime military drill begun last week was limited to computer simulations because of the coronavirus risk as well as the ongoing efforts to engage with the North.
But her message was clear.
"War drills and hostility can never go with dialogue and cooperation," Kim Yo Jong said.
When asked about Kim Yo Jong's statement, Blinken told a briefing in Tokyo that he was aware of her comments, but that he was more interested in hearing what America's allies and partners think about North Korea.
Blinken and Austin are travelling in Asia this week for foreign policy and security talks with allies in Japan and South Korea, among other stops.
The new U.S. administration is expected to wrap up a review of North Korea policy in coming weeks. And Blinken said Washington is considering whether additional pressure on North Korea could be effective.
The timing of Kim's comments seems designed to ensure that North Korea will be at the top of Blinken and Austin's agenda when they land in Seoul, said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea expert at King's College London.
"Until now, the discussion was focusing on The Quad, dealing with China and the North Korea policy review," he said. "Now Kim's statement will be central to discussions."
North Korea has so far rebuffed entreaties from the United States to engage in dialogue, the White House said on Monday, as a chill in relations that began under then-President Donald Trump has extended into Biden's presidency.
Leader Kim Jong Un had three high-profile summit meetings with Trump and exchanged a series of letters, but the nuclear-armed state ended talks and said it would not engage further unless the United States drops its hostile policies.
'SHRUNKEN WAR GAMES'
Kim Yo Jong mocked South Korea for "resorting to shrunken war games, now that they find themselves in the quagmire of political, economic and epidemic crisis."
Boo Seung-chan, a spokesman for South Korea's Ministry of Defence, said the drills were routine and defensive in nature.
"The ministry's position is that North Korea must show a flexible attitude, such as responding to dialogue, to build a lasting and solid peace on the Korean Peninsula," he told a briefing.
The inter-Korean engagement that had improved in 2018 and is sought by South Korea "won't come easily again" and North Korea will be watching to see if there is further provocations, said Kim.
She said North Korea would consider pulling out of an inter-Korean military agreement aimed at reducing tensions along their shared border, and would review whether to dissolve several organisations aimed at cooperation with the South.
Kim's statement, as colourful as it is, is generally consistent with past North Korean statements expressing frustrations at disparities between words and actions, said Jenny Town, director of 38 North, a U.S.-based website that tracks North Korea.
(Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Chris Reese, Richard Pullin and Tom Hogue)