North Korea told South Korea it was willing to give up its nuclear weapons, opening the door for talks with the US while raising suspicions that Kim Jong Un was employing another tactic to ease sanctions.
Kim told visiting envoys from Seoul that he was ready to suspend weapons tests and hold candid talks with the US to normalise relations, if the safety of his regime was guaranteed, the South Korean Government said. In response, South Korean President Moon Jae In agreed to meet Kim for a summit along their shared border late next month.
"We will see what happens," US President Donald Trump said in a tweet today that linked to an earlier North Korea story. The White House, National Security Council and State Department didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
Trump has said that North Korea must be willing to denuclearise before talks can begin, even as tensions on the Korean Peninsula have eased recently as both countries participated in the Winter Olympics. Trump has threatened military action to stop Kim from acquiring the capability to strike the US homeland with a nuclear weapon.
Analysts cautioned that North Korea has a history of using negotiations to buy time for its weapons programme and secure sanctions relief. The Kim dynasty has over the years raised the prospect of abandoning its nuclear-weapons programme, if the US gave up its hostile policies. Serious negotiations haven't taken place since so-called six-party talks - also including China, Japan and Russia - broke down in 2009.
"It's progress - certainly more than most would have expected - but it's still rhetorical," said Robert Kelly, a political science associate professor at South Korea's Pusan National University. While it's unclear if Trump will agree to return to negotiations, he said, "the pressure will be on to talk."
The Japanese yen weakened against the dollar after the announcement.
The US and North Korea have been at loggerheads since the Korean War ended without a peace treaty almost 65 years ago, and Kim's Government has repeatedly said nuclear weapons were necessary to deter any US-led military action. In November, he declared the programme complete after successfully testing an intercontinental ballistic missile that arms control experts believe could reach any American city.
The launch was part of an escalating series of weapons tests last year - including a likely hydrogen bomb detonation in September - that alarmed Kim's neighbours and prompted the United Nations to severely restrict trade to the country. Trump urged "maximum pressure" to force him to the negotiating table and warned in a speech to the UN General Assembly that the US would "totally destroy" the country in any conflict.
Only last month, Trump imposed the toughest US sanctions yet on North Korea, saying it could be a "very rough thing" if the measures don't succeed.
"The key point will be whether Trump will allow any sanctions to be taken off - the most lethal threat North Korea wants to get rid of," said Youngshik Bong, a researcher at Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul. "If sanctions remain intact, time will not be on North Korea's side, and the pain will continue."
On New Year's Day, Kim made an unexpected overture to reopen talks with Moon, who was elected last year after pledging to improve relations with his northern rival, ahead of the Winter Olympics in South Korea. A flurry of talks culminated in an unprecedented visit last month to South Korea by Kim's sister, who offered a meeting with her elder sibling.
"North Korea has clearly expressed its intention for denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula, and if there is no military threat, and North Korea's regime security is promised, they have clarified that there is no reason to hold nuclear weapons," Moon's office said.
Trump Administration officials said that North Korea's Olympic delegation cancelled a meeting with US Vice-President Mike Pence on the sidelines of the Games after he criticised the regime. That would've been the highest-level exchange between the two sides since Trump came to office.
Even so, Pence last month said the US was ready to engage in talks about North Korea's nuclear programme even as it maintains pressure on Kim. He dubbed the new strategy "maximum pressure and engagement at the same time."
North Korea's previously committed to denuclearisation during the six-party talks that began in 2003. The last round collapsed after Pyongyang defied the international community with the launch of a satellite that was perceived to be a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Kim has resisted efforts to discuss his weapons programme, with his envoy issuing a "strong complaint" when the South Koreans raised the issue early in Olympic talks. As recently as last weekend, North Korea said the country wouldn't accept US preconditions.
"It insists that it will have dialogue only for making the DPRK abandon nuclear weapons and persist in 'maximum pressure' until complete denuclearisation is realised," a North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson told the official Korean Central News Agency. "This is really more than ridiculous."