In stunning and unexpected announcement late Tuesday, Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to a deal that could see South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet for a rare leaders’ summit at the two countries’ heavily armed border next month.
Moon’s top security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, who had returned from meeting Kim in Pyongyang earlier in the day after leading a South Korean delegation, told a news briefing that the two Koreas had agreed to open a communication hotline between Moon and Kim to “reduce military tensions,” the South’s Yonhap news agency quoted Chung as saying.
The two leaders were expected to hold their first telephone conversation before the planned summit, he said.
In a key turn of events, the North also restated its commitment to rid itself of nuclear weapons, Chung said.
“The North side clearly affirmed its commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and said it would have no reason to possess nuclear weapons should the safety of its regime be guaranteed and military threats against North Korea removed,” he said.
The North also expressed its willingness to hold “candid” talks with the United States on ways to realize the denuclearization of the peninsula and normalize bilateral ties.
It also said there would be no military provocations — including additional nuclear tests or ballistic missile launches — so long as the U.S.-North Korea talks are in progress, Chung added.
“In addition, the North promised not to use not only nuclear weapons but also conventional weapons against the South,” Chung said.
Later Tuesday, the Japanese government voiced apparent bewilderment at the developments after having warned against easing up on the U.S.-led campaign of “maximum pressure” against the North amid the diplomatic thaw with South Korea.
“We cannot decide anything unless we directly hear from South Korea its intentions,” a Foreign Ministry source was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. A high-level government official, meanwhile, said Japan “cannot easily change” its tough stance on the country’s nuclear and missile programs.
Chung and Suh Hoon, head of South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, were now scheduled to fly to the U.S. to brief American officials there on the meeting. After their return from the U.S., Chung will visit China and Russia and Suh Japan. The four countries are members of the so-called six-party denuclearization talks, which also involve the two Koreas. The talks have been stalled since late 2008.
Ahead of the summit news, Japan, which has been alarmed by the North’s breakneck pace of development in its missile and nuclear programs and has been one of the most steadfast advocates of Trump’s pressure campaign, voiced confidence Tuesday that South Korea remains committed to the allied push.
“Japan, the United States and South Korea are in close alignment with each other,” Foreign Minister Taro Kono was quoted as saying following a Cabinet meeting.
“North Korea is desperately trying to use ‘smile diplomacy’ because sanctions are taking effect,” he said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, meanwhile, sounded a cautious note, saying that Tokyo will seek a briefing from Seoul about the results of the envoys’ trip to Pyongyang.
“When dealing with North Korea, including through this dispatch of envoys from South Korea, we should reflect fully on the lesson that past dialogue has not led to North Korea’s denuclearization,” Suga was quoted as telling a news conference.
Still, Suga said that the allies remained on the same page and committed to the pressure policy.
Earlier Tuesday, Kim hailed his four-hour meeting a day earlier with South Korean envoys dispatched to Pyongyang to lay the foundation for talks with the U.S., calling his discussions an “openhearted talk.”
Kim, who wined and dined the South Korean delegation at his ruling party’s headquarters Monday, said it was his “firm will to vigorously advance” and “write a new history of national reunification” with Seoul, state media and the South’s presidential office said.
The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) had earlier Tuesday reported that the two Koreas had reached a “satisfactory agreement,” apparently on the summit, but gave no further details.
Kim invited Moon to Pyongyang for a leadership summit last month. The dramatic gesture was verbally delivered by Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, during a meeting a day after the opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics in South Korea.
The KCNA report said Kim had given “the important instruction to the relevant field to rapidly take practical steps” for realizing the summit after receiving a personal letter from the South Korean leader.
The South Korean delegation was dispatched to the North in hopes of encouraging Pyongyang and Washington to begin talks with one another. Tensions and fears of conflict on the Korean Peninsula have soared over the last year, prompted by bellicose insults and barbed threats between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Still, both North Korea and the United States have expressed a willingness to talk, though Trump has demanded the North “denuke” first and has made clear that all options, including military action, remain on the table.
Chung said the North Korean leader agreed to put the denuclearization issue on the dialogue table with the U.S. without any conditions.
“Chairman Kim said the denuclearization issue may be discussed as an agenda item for the North-U.S. dialogue,” Chung said. “What we must especially pay attention to is the fact that (he) has clearly stated that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was an instruction of his predecessor and that there has been no change to such an instruction.”
The North’s sudden acquiescence to the U.S. demand was all the more stunning because Pyongyang has repeatedly vowed never to give up its nuclear deterrent in the face of U.S. “hostility,” while also saying that it will not sit down for talks under preconditions.
Moon has sought to bridge this gap, taking the dramatic step last week of urging the U.S. and North Korea to each cede some ground in an attempt to broker the talks.
The South Korean leader has also spearheaded the Olympic rapprochement that saw the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Games and a thaw in inter-Korean ties.
Tuesday’s KCNA report said the Olympics had provided “a good atmosphere of reconciliation, unity and dialogue” between the North and South, it quoted Kim as telling the South Korean delegation.
In an earlier statement, the Blue House said the meeting and dinner ran a marathon four-plus hours, indicating that exhaustive discussions may have taken place.
During the dinner, KCNA said Kim and the envoys spoke on a number of issues, although the word “denuclearization” had been unsurprisingly absent from that report.
Kim, it said, “made an exchange of in-depth views on the issues for easing the acute military tensions on the Korean Peninsula and activating the versatile dialogue, contact, cooperation and exchange,” it said.
A longtime proponent of engagement, Moon has surprised critics by proving to be a pragmatist in his quest to secure talks. This was highlighted Tuesday, when the liberal leader noted the need to strengthen the combined defensive capabilities with the U.S. while also stressing the importance of dialogue.
“Peace is our survival and a necessary condition for our prosperity. However, without a strong military and robust national defense, we can neither make nor maintain peace,” Moon was quoted as saying.
“We must talk with North Korea for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” he added. “But at the same time, we must focus all our energy on building capabilities that can counter North Korea and its missiles quickly and practically.”
Monday’s meeting marked the first time South Korean officials had met with the young North Korean leader in person since he took power after the death of his father, dictator Kim Jong Il, in late 2011. The delegation’s trip was the first known high-level visit by South Korean officials to the North in about a decade.
As North Korea becomes increasingly isolated, the meeting also provided Kim with a chance to look statesmanlike. Smiling for cameras from his country’s propaganda apparatus, photos released showed a beaming Kim, who is believed to be 34- to 36-years-old, dressed in a black Mao-style suit and clasping the hand of Chung.
The KCNA dispatch reflected the statesmanlike tone, noting that Kim had met the delegation by “shaking hands of the special envoy and his party one by one” and had “warmly welcomed them” for talks that took place in a “compatriotic and sincere atmosphere.”
Analysts said Kim was using the display to convey a growing sense of confidence and security in his position despite talk of war and crushing international sanctions.
“The optics of the meeting show a confident and smiling North Korean leader, but it also parallels President Moon’s willingness to meet with the North Korean delegations to Pyeongchang,” said John Nilsson-Wright, a North Korea expert at the Chatham House think tank in Britain.
“It demonstrates … at home and abroad that his political position is secure and he is prepared to take risks,” Nilsson-Wright said, adding that it also indicated that the discussions “are intended to be serious” and are “probably not merely a public relations exercise.”
Still, he added, Kim “may be partially rattled by the talk of military action emanating from D.C. and a fear of ever-increasing sanctions.”
Experts also cautioned that Kim’s presence at the meeting may not have only been for foreign consumption.
Hazel Smith, a professor at the Centre for Korean Studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), said the meeting shows that Kim’s decision to seek avenues for talks is “backed up at the highest level.”
“It doesn’t just indicate to the outside, it indicates to the inside, as well,” said Smith, the author of “North Korea: Markets and Military Rule.”
Smith said that while conflicts between factions exist in the risky environment of North Korean elites, “what Kim Jong Un’s presence does, is it indicates both a message to the small number of families that run the country and a message to the outside that this is a consensus approach from the top.”
According to Nilsson-Wright, Washington must now walk a fine line as the groundwork is laid for talks aimed at ultimately ridding the peninsula of nuclear weapons.
Washington “must be very careful not to convey the impression that they accept North Korea as a de facto nuclear power, for fear of weakening anti-proliferation efforts regionally and globally, to avoid inflaming Japanese public opinion and antagonizing the (Shinzo) Abe administration, and to avoid sparking a competitive nuclear arms race in the region,” Nilsson-Wright said.
But the clock is ticking.
While the Winter Olympics — including the Paralympics that run March 9-18 — have provided a slim window of opportunity, a number of challenges loom after the games’ conclusion.
These include the issue of postponed joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. Seoul and the Pentagon said last week that they will announce the time frame for the drills by the end of this month.
The North had slammed the prospect of resumed joint drills as “a vicious challenge to the … detente and durable peace on the Korean Peninsula” and vowed to “resolutely counter them,” but Kim expressed an “understanding” about plans to conduct the exercises at a similar level to last year’s, Yonhap quoted an unidentified Moon administration official as saying.
“Our stance on the joint military drills is that it is hard to postpone the exercises again or suspend them and there is no justification for doing so,” the ranking presidential official said. “But Kim said that he understands the South’s stance.”
Kim told the envoys that he expects the joint drill to be readjusted once the security situation on the Korean Peninsula stabilizes, the official added.