SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has told South Korean envoys that his country is willing to begin negotiations with the United States on abandoning its nuclear weapons and that it would suspend all nuclear and missile tests while it is engaged in such talks, South Korean officials said on Tuesday.
During the envoys’ two-day visit to Pyongyang, the North’s capital, which ended on Tuesday, the two Koreas also agreed to hold a summit meeting between Mr. Kim and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea on the countries’ border in late April, Mr. Moon’s office said in a statement.
“The North Korean side clearly stated its willingness to denuclearize,” the statement said. “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.”
If the statement is corroborated by North Korea, it would be the first time Mr. Kim has indicated that his government is willing to discuss giving up nuclear weapons in return for security guarantees from the United States. Until now, North Korea has said its nuclear weapons were not for bargaining away.
“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.”
The South Korean statement said the two Koreas would begin working-level discussions to prepare for the summit meeting, to be held in the Freedom 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 they can reach each other 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 are a major milestone 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 a political delegation that included his sister.
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. Moon hopes that a freeze on nuclear and missile tests by North Korea will be enough of a trust-building step to prompt Mr. Trump to agree to open dialogue with North Korea. 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.
China, which has been pushing for direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington for many months, had no immediate reaction to the South Korean statement. 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 past 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.”
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.
But even if Washington and Pyongyang were to begin a dialogue, analysts have said, the onetime battlefield enemies would find it hard to reach a compromise.
Washington says it will settle for nothing less than a “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” of the North’s nuclear weapons program. But Pyongyang has insisted that Washington discuss not only denuclearization but also ending such “hostile” policies as the American military presence in South Korea and the two allies’ war games, which Pyongyang says drove it to build a nuclear deterrent in the first place.
Washington remains deeply skeptical of any attempt by the South to improve ties with the North without progress on denuclearization. Although Mr. Moon wants inter-Korean dialogue, he has said that the two initiatives must move “in parallel,” and has been urging the United States and North Korea to start negotiations on the nuclear program.