North Korea has offered to freeze its illicit nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs to engage in talks with the United States, South Korean officials said Tuesday, a move that could signal a thaw in the nuclear impasse and a victory for President Trump's unconventional diplomacy.
The surprise announcement came after South Korea's spy chief and its top national security official returned Tuesday night to Seoul from a meeting in Pyongyang with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un.
South Korea said that Kim had offered to cease any new nuclear tests and missile launches as talks progress. North Korea has yet to officially confirm the South Korean account, but the apparent overture — if true — could help ease sharply rising tensions in northeast Asia.
Pyongyang's apparent agreement in principle to the idea of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula would match a longtime U.S. goal, but it came with significant caveats that could make a deal impossible to achieve.
"The North Korean side clearly stated its willingness to denuclearize," South Korea's government said in a statement. "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."
That broad wording could mean Pyongyang will insist the United States cease its annual military exercises with the South — or potentially leave the peninsula entirely, as North Korea has long sought. The United States has more than 20,000 troops deployed in South Korea.
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Trump praised the prospect of the first direct U.S. talks with Pyongyang in years. "I think we're having very good dialogue," he said. "We have made good progress."
Trump traded insults for much of last year with North Korea's leader, mocking him as "Little Rocket Man" and threatening to unleash "fire and fury" upon the country. He was more circumspect Tuesday, saying Kim's government seems "to be acting positively but we're going to see."
Vice President Mike Pence issued a harsher response, saying the U.S. and its allies "remain committed to applying maximum pressure on the Kim regime to end their nuclear program. 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."
Kim's apparent offer stunned many regional security experts and analysts in Washington. The North has tested four nuclear devices and dozens of ballistic missiles since 2013, raising fears it could soon attain the ability to launch a nuclear attack against the United States.
"It's very encouraging. If North Korea has really committed to denuclearizing, that is a positive step forward," said Chun Yung-woo, a onetime national security advisor to former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who took a hard line with the totalitarian North.
"I must see if our understanding of North Korea's commitment is the same as what North Korea really means. There are some conditions that must be clarified," he added.
"No one I know had expected this," said Kim Byoung-joo, an affiliate professor of foreign studies at Hankuk University. "It will be very difficult for the U.S. to offer any negative response to this."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said his country "stands ready to play a positive role" to ensure the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. China is North Korea's largest trading partner, but it has increasingly enforced United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang, a push that Trump publicly credited as "a big help" on Tuesday.
The surprising announcement in Seoul followed a failed diplomatic outreach effort between Washington and Pyongyang a month ago.
The White House had secretly planned for Pence, who led the U.S. delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, to meet with a high-ranking North Korean delegation on the sidelines, U.S. officials said later.
But the North called off the scheduled meeting after Pence said the Trump administration was planning to impose a harsh new set of economic sanctions.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, however, met with Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un, during the Olympics, and a delegation of senior South Korean officials visited Pyongyang, the North's capital, on Monday.
The United States and South Korea have planned to resume annual joint military drills after delaying them for the Games. It's not yet clear if those exercises will be postponed again in a gesture to the North, which routinely condemns them as a pretext for invasion.
Some White House officials are worried that North Korea may use talks to buy time to secretly develop a nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental United States, according to an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.
Over the last three decades, North Korea has secretly lurched forward in its nuclear capabilities even during sporadic periods of engagement and diplomacy with the U.S. and other world powers.
The White House did not set denuclearization as a precondition for talks to start — a shift from Trump's public position in recent months — but North Korea must agree to discuss giving up its nuclear program as part of any negotiations, the administration official said.
The Pentagon made clear it was skeptical of the North Korean offer.
Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr., who heads the Defense Intelligence Agency, said during a previously scheduled Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday that Kim "shows no interest in walking away from his nuclear or his ballistic missile programs. Additional missile launches are a near certainty, and further nuclear tests are possible."
Sen. James M. Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who chaired the hearing, then asked Ashley about the possibility of successful talks with North Korea.
"I don't share your optimism," Ashley said. "We'll see how this plays out."
The tentative agreement announced Tuesday includes a pledge by both North and South Korea, still technically at war, to meet in late April at the truce village known as Panmunjom on the heavily fortified border that separates them.
The North invited the South to send a cultural delegation to Pyongyang as a sign of inter-Korean goodwill. The two nations also agreed to connect a communications hot line.
North and South Korea have had several small-scale military clashes in recent years, including a 2015 land mine explosion and gunfire exchanges around the border, known as the demilitarized zone.
The agreement, released by Moon's office Tuesday night, said the two leaders would try to talk by phone before the next round of inter-Korean talks.
Trump had appeared to hint at a possible breakthrough Saturday. He said the North Koreans had "called up" and asked to begin talks, adding that he had responded that "you have to de-nuke."
"We will be meeting, and we'll see if anything positive happens," Trump said in an aside during a speech at the Gridiron dinner, an annual satirical event put on by members of the Washington press corps.
At the time, officials said Trump was referring to efforts by the South Koreans to get the North Koreans and the U.S. into talks, but said that nothing had been scheduled.
The announcement comes days after the close of the Winter Olympics. The sporting event helped prompt several diplomatic surprises, starting with a conciliatory statement by Kim on New Year's Day.
Both sides agreed ahead of the Games to field a joint women's hockey squad — the first truly Korean team in Olympics history — and also to march together during the opening ceremony under a neutral unification flag.
The dialogue allowed other North Korean athletes to compete in the Games, and for the nation to send its cheerleaders as part of a charm offensive that included cultural exchanges.
The two Koreas have endured under an uneasy cease-fire since the Korean War ended in a stalemate in 1953.
The North, backed by communist powers like the Soviet Union and China, chose a totalitarian model, isolating itself from the world. The South, which embraced democracy in the late 1980s, has been a crucial ally to the United States and has the world's 11th-largest economy.
Stiles reported from Seoul and Parsons reported from Washington. Brian Bennett and Chris Megerian in Washington also contributed to this report.
Stiles is a special correspondent.
Times staff writer Brian Bennett in the Washington bureau contributed to this story.
1:30 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from President Trump.
7:55 a.m.: This article was updated with Pentagon reaction.
7:20 a.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction.
6:05 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details.
5:49 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details of the proposed deal and reaction from China.