North and South Korea agree to historic summit next month

US watching closely for signs Pyongyang trying to drive wedge between allies

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shakes hands with South Korean national security director Chung Eui-yong, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photograph: Korea News Service via AP

In a dramatic easing of tensions in Asia, North and South Korea have agreed that their two leaders will hold a summit next month to discuss the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula.

The North is willing to suspend nuclear tests if the US agrees to talks, Chung Eui-yong, security adviser to South Korea's president Moon Jae-in, told a news briefing after he returned from leading a delegation to the North for talks.

The summit between North Korea's Kim Jong-un and Mr Moon will be only the third between the two Koreas and will be held in the joint-security area of Panmunjeom, Mr Chung told a press briefing.

The North had indicated it was willing to hold “candid” talks with the US to bring about denuclearisation of the peninsula and normalise ties.


"The North side clearly affirmed its commitment to the denuclearisation 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," Mr Chung said.

‘Open-hearted’ talks

Mr Chung headed a 10-person delegation to North Korea for “open-hearted” talks aimed mending ties on the Korean peninsula, bitterly divided since the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice but no peace treaty.

Indications the North may be open to denuclearisation is crucial as the US has always insisted that a willingness to abandoning its nuclear weapons was a condition for talks, while North Korea has insisted it would keep its nuclear missiles as a deterrent against Washington’s aim for regime change.

Pyongyang has been under heavy UN sanctions since a series of nuclear tests and missile launches were held in defiance of international calls to abandon its atomic programme. The North has not carried out any nuclear or missile tests since November.

News of a summit is the most significant development since lines of dialogue were reopened in January for the first time in two years, culminating in the North Koreans attending the Winter Olympics.

The international community, and the US in particular, is cautious and watching closely for signs that Pyongyang is trying to drive a wedge between traditional allies Washington and Seoul.

US president Donald Trump welcomed the "positive" statements from South Korea, but he declined to say whether he had any preconditions for talks with Pyongyang.

Trump earlier in the day on Twitter cited “possible progress” but said it may be “false hope”.

Ill-tempered war of words

Mr Kim and Donald Trump have fought a particularly ill-tempered war of words, exchanging insults and threats via social media.

The talks in the North were the first time Mr Kim has met officials from the South since he came to power in 2011.

A four-hour meeting and dinner were also attended by Mr Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, and his younger sister Kim Yo-jong, who brought the invitation for talks to the South last month during the Winter Olympics.

The delegation to the North also included Suh Hoon, head of South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service.

In the meantime, the two leaders would stay in contact.

“The South and the North have agreed to set up a hotline between their leaders to allow close consultations and a reduction of military tension, while also agreeing to hold the first phone conversation before the third South-North summit,” Mr Chung said.

Mr Chung now heads to Washington, China, Russia and Japan to brief the countries on the outcome of the trip. All four are part of the six-party talks chaired by China, which also involve the two Koreas, stalled since 2008.

Additional reporting: Reuters

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing