North Korea Signals Willingness to ‘Denuclearize,’ South Says

“The North expressed its willingness to hold a heartfelt dialogue with the United States on the issues of denuclearization and normalizing relations with the United States,” the statement said. “It made it clear that while dialogue is continuing, it will not attempt any strategic provocations, such as nuclear and ballistic missile tests.”

On Twitter, Mr. Trump, who has veered from bellicose threats against Mr. Kim to offers to sit down with him, welcomed what he called “possible progress” with the North. “For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned,” Mr. Trump said. “The World is watching and waiting! May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!”

Mr. Trump expounded on his reaction later to reporters during an Oval Office meeting with Prime Minister Stefan Lofven of Sweden. “We have come certainly a long way, at least rhetorically, with North Korea,” Mr. Trump said. “The statements coming out of South Korea and North Korea have been very positive. That would be a great thing for the world.”

Asked if he would meet with Mr. Kim, Mr. Trump said, “We’ll see what happens.”

The cautious American reaction partly reflected a history of suspicion toward the motives of North Korea, which has remained an enemy of the United States since the 1950-53 Korean War.

A pattern of what American officials have described as North Korean duplicity in previous talks has repeated itself, with modest variations, during the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations. In January 2009, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who had served under both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama, summarized the American skepticism about North Korea with an oft-repeated line: “I’m tired of buying the same horse twice.”

The South Korean statement said the two Koreas would begin working-level discussions to prepare for the summit meeting, to be held in the Peace House, a South Korean building in Panmunjom, the so-called truce village that straddles the border. Before Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon meet, the countries will install, for the first time, a hotline by which the leaders can talk on the phone directly, the statement said.

The statement gave no indication that North Korea would start dismantling nuclear or missile programs anytime soon. Nonetheless, the reported agreements represented major progress in Mr. Moon’s efforts to improve relations with North Korea. Those efforts advanced considerably during the recent Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, to which Mr. Kim sent athletes, entertainers and political delegations that included his sister.

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The top South Korean envoys who returned from North Korea on Tuesday — Mr. Moon’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, and the director of the South’s National Intelligence Service, Suh Hoon — are expected to be dispatched to Washington this week to brief the Trump administration on their discussions with Mr. Kim.

Mr. Chung told reporters in Seoul, the South Korean capital, that Mr. Kim had been unexpectedly flexible. He said the delegation had expected him to insist that the South and the United States not hold their annual joint military exercises, which were suspended for the Olympics.

“Kim Jong-un simply said he could understand why the joint exercises must resume in April on the same scale as before,” Mr. Chung said. “But he said he expected them to be readjusted if the situation on the Korean Peninsula stabilizes in the future.”

Mr. Chung said the South Koreans believed that their agreements with North Korea would be enough to start a dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. He also said he was carrying additional messages from Mr. Kim to the Trump administration that he could not reveal.

“There was no other specific demand from North Korea in returning to dialogue,” he said. “They only said they wanted to be treated like a serious dialogue partner.”

For Mr. Trump, the overture by North Korea sets in motion a challenging phase that will call on the United States to exercise diplomatic muscles after a long stretch in which the White House relied on economic pressure, backed by threats of military force, to deal with the North.

That challenge will be compounded because the State Department’s veteran North Korea negotiator, Joe Yun, recently announced his retirement from the Foreign Service. Another experienced negotiator, Victor Cha, was recently sidelined when the White House decided not to move ahead with his nomination as ambassador to South Korea.

Administration officials are deeply wary of being drawn into a negotiation in which the United States makes concessions — on issues like military exercises or shipments of medical and food aid — only to see the North Koreans renege on their commitments later.

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Mr. Trump has said that the United States could talk with North Korea, but “only under the right conditions.” American officials have repeatedly said they can start negotiations with the North only if it agrees to discuss denuclearizing. They have also insisted that the North first take some actions that would convince them of its sincerity.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera of Japan, which has steadfastly supported the Trump administration’s tough approach to sanctions against North Korea, struck a note of caution about Pyongyang’s interest in negotiations.

“While talking about nuclear abandonment several times, it turned out that North Korea didn’t halt its nuclear development in the past,” Mr. Onodera said. “We need to carefully assess if this North and South dialogue will really lead to the abandonment of nuclear and missile development.”

Graphic

Only 5 Nations Can Hit Any Place on Earth With a Missile. For Now.

North Korea is among a number of countries that have been working to improve the accuracy and range of their missiles.


China, which has pushed for direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington for many months, welcomed the South Korean statement. Geng Shuang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said China hoped “the relevant parties can seize the current opportunity” to work toward “politically resolving the Korean Peninsula issue.”

One Chinese expert on North Korea characterized Pyongyang’s reported offer as “concessions that are dramatic and significant.”

“It will be hard for the U.S. government to resist,” said the expert, Cheng Xiaohe, of Renmin University in Beijing.

But Evans J. R. Revere, a former State Department official who was involved in previous negotiations with North Korea, was less impressed. He said the formula of denuclearization for security guarantees had “been the basis of several sets of talks” between the two countries in the past.

“The U.S. has actually provided security guarantees to North Korea, including in writing by President Clinton,” Mr. Revere said. “Such guarantees have never been adequate or acceptable to the North Koreans, just as the U.S. provision of alternative energy sources, food and other assistance has never proved adequate.”

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He also noted that the moratorium on nuclear and missile tests offered by the North would not prevent Pyongyang from continuing to build its nuclear arsenal, including by producing fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Even so, Mr. Revere said the Trump administration would be hard-pressed to reject the North’s proposal without making it appear that Washington — not Pyongyang — was the problem.

“With these developments, the door seems wide open to a U.S.-North Korea exploratory conversation if both sides want one,” he said. The North went to considerable lengths to meet the American demand that dialogue had to be about denuclearization, he said.

The 10 members of the delegation Mr. Moon sent to the North were the first South Korean officials to meet Mr. Kim since he took power six years ago. They were also the first outside officials to directly hear Mr. Kim explain his intentions regarding his country’s nuclear weapons programs.

Mr. Kim, 34, has accelerated the North’s nuclear and missile tests since inheriting power after his father, Kim Jong-il, died in 2011. Mr. Moon spent most of the past year helplessly watching the Korean Peninsula edge toward possible war as the North test-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles and conducted its most powerful nuclear test yet, while Mr. Trump threatened to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea.

After launching an intercontinental ballistic missile in November, Mr. Kim claimed to have a “nuclear button” on his desk with which he could fire missiles capable of reaching the mainland United States. American officials say Mr. Kim is getting dangerously close to being able to strike the United States with nuclear-tipped missiles.

But Mr. Kim suddenly shifted his tone on New Year’s Day, using an annual speech to propose sending a delegation to the Olympics. During the Games last month, his sister, Kim Yo-jong, hand-delivered his proposal for a summit meeting with Mr. Moon.

The South Korean leader hoped to use the thaw surrounding the Olympics to improve inter-Korean ties and to steer the United States and North Korea away from what he called a collision course. Analysts say Mr. Kim’s sudden overture for dialogue is driven at least in part by his desire to weaken sanctions that have begun biting his isolated country, as well as to stave off Washington’s threat to use military force.

Choe Sang-Hun reported from Seoul, and Mark Landler from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Jane Perlez from Beijing, Motoko Rich from Tokyo and Rick Gladstone from New York.


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