North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has suggested his country is willing to discuss nuclear disarmament with the U.S. and would suspend all nuclear and missile tests during the proposed talks, South Korean officials said Tuesday following meetings with him in Pyongyang.
During a two-day visit by a South Korean delegation to North Korea’s capital that ended Tuesday, the two sides also agreed to hold a summit meeting between Kim and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in at a village along their shared border in late April, according to a statement issued by Moon’s office.
“The North Korean side clearly stated its willingness to denuclearize," the statement said, adding that "it made it clear that it would have no reason to keep nuclear weapons if the military threat to the North was eliminated and its security guaranteed."
The statement said that the North had “expressed its willingness to hold a heartfelt dialogue with the United States on the issues of denuclearization and normalizing relations,” and that “while dialogue is continuing, it will not attempt any strategic provocations, such as nuclear and ballistic missile tests.”
North Korea has previously stated it would not be willing to make its weapons development program part of any negotiations with the U.S. and has conducted more than a dozen missile tests in the past year, provoking a war of words between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim.
The two Koreas plan to begin working-level talks in advance of the April summit between Kim and Moon at South Korea’s Freedom House in the Panmunjom “truce” village in the demilitarized zone, the statement said, adding that the countries will install a hotline to contact one another for the first time since the division of the Korean Peninsula in 1945.
The reported agreements follow Kim’s decision to send athletes, entertainers and cheerleaders, as well as a political delegation that included his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to last month’s Winter Olympic Games, hosted by South Korea in Pyeongchang. Kim’s sister invited Moon to the North for talks during her visit.
Trump, whose administration has championed tough sanctions against a nation already squeezed by United Nations Security Council measures in response to its weapons programs, called North Korea’s proposal “very positive” Tuesday, but cautioned that the U.S. would need to assess the situation further.
"The statements coming out of South Korea and North Korea have been very positive," he said at the Oval Office in Washington.
“It would be a great thing for the world, it would be a great thing for North Korea, it would be a great thing for the peninsula, but we will see what happens … We are going to do something, one way or the other we are going to do something and not let that situation fester.”
Earlier, in a Twitter post, the U.S. president welcomed “possible progress” in talks with the North.
“For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned,” he wrote.
“The World is watching and waiting! May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!”
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said in a statement that regardless of how talks with North Korea proceed, Washington “will be firm in our resolve.”
“The United States and our allies remain committed to applying maximum pressure on the Kim regime to end their nuclear program,” he said.
“All options are on the table and our posture toward the regime will not change until we see credible, verifiable, and concrete steps toward denuclearization.”
The U.N. welcomed plans for a summit between Moon and Kim, according to a report by Agence France-Presse, quoting spokesman Stephane Dujarric, who said the world body was ready to help facilitate talks that could bring stability to the Korean Peninsula.
“Obviously, we are encouraged by these discussions," Dujarric said, adding that “anything that can further reduce military tensions is welcome.”
“We reiterate our commitment to further assist in this process with the governments concerned in any way.”
The director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, Suh Hoon, and Moon’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong—the leaders of the 10-member South Korean delegation that visited Pyongyang—are expected to brief the Trump administration on their talks with Kim in Washington this week.
The delegation was the first by South Korean officials to meet Kim Jong Un since he assumed power in North Korea following the death of his father Kim Jong Il in December 2011.
If April’s proposed summit between Kim and Moon takes place, it will mark the third such meeting of the rival nations’ leaders since the 1950-53 Korean War. Two prior summits in 2000 and 2007 resulted in cooperative agreements that were later ended by subsequent South Korean administrations after violent actions against South Koreans by North Korea.
Prospect of talks
Observers agreed that Tuesday’s development signified a positive step towards talks between North Korea and the U.S., but suggested it was too early to tell whether they would take place and where they might lead if they did.
Robert Gallucci, the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea during the nuclear crisis of 1994, told RFA’s Korean Service it is “very difficult to tell … whether the U.S. and [North Korea] are actually going to get together for bilateral talks,” but called Tuesday’s statement “interesting and step in the right direction.”
“Good news, but it's way too early to see whether it's going to be sufficient to base policy on,” he added.
Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that if North Korea suspends tests for the duration of negotiations, it would constitute a “de facto moratorium.”
“That, plus a direct publicly stated willingness to talk with the U.S. should satisfy any reasonable U.S. conditions for a first round of exploratory talks,” he said.
John Merrill, former chief of the Northeast Asia division of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. State Department, said he believes resumption of U.S.-North Korea talks is “possible,” though it could “take a while.”
“There's always the possibility of a deal-breaker—North Korea needs to believe that it is getting something out of playing ball,” he said.
“I hope that the visit of the South Korean envoys to Washington later this week will help convince people that this opening is for real and we need to take advantage of it.”
But Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, warned that talks with North Korea had produced little of substance several times before.
“So while North Korea saying it's willing to discuss denuclearization is a welcome step to the path, we do have to remember that they signed international agreements where they promised never to build nuclear weapons and then in subsequent agreements to give up nuclear weapons they'd promised never to build,” he said.
“They, of course, are required under 11 U.N. resolutions to denuclearize, so not only any nuclear or missile tests are violations, but the continued existence of their programs are in defiance of the international community,” he added.
“When they talk about being willing to offer it up in return for an end to the U.S. hostile policy, well then that's raising the bar that they already agreed to.”
Reported by RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hee Jung Yang. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.