North Korean leader Kim Jong-un told his South Korean counterpart President Moon Jae-in that North Korea would be willing to denuclearize in return for a commitment that the U.S. will not invade the country. The New York Times reported Kim’s offer—made Friday during the historic summit between the two countries—and other details of the meeting Sunday via a South Korean government spokesman. The conciliatory meeting at Panmunjom, on the border of the two Koreas, was a dramatic turn for the two countries, which have formally been at war since the outbreak of the Korean war, and was aimed at paving the way for Kim’s upcoming summit with President Trump. During the meeting, Kim signed a joint declaration affirming a “complete denuclearization” and “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula,” but did not publicly comment on how, and under what conditions, this process would take place.
The question of how far Kim would be willing to go in shuttering his nuclear program and how honest his intentions are for good faith negotiations over the country’s nuclear program have loomed large over not only Friday’s meeting, but also the upcoming Trump summit. Skeptics have pointed to past overtures by the Kim regime and the leader’s potential desire to ease economic sanctions and rehabilitate his global image without making substantive concessions on his nukes. The Trump administration has been firm that complete denuclearization is a precondition for the lifting of economic sanctions that have been placed on the country for years. The denuclearization question is one of principle—is North Korea willing to disarm—but it also raises a number of sticky practical questions, such as inspections and monitoring.
According to the South Korean government’s account of Kim’s remarks Friday, the North Korean leader said he would invite experts and journalists from South Korea and the U.S. to witness the closing of the country’s only known underground nuclear test site, a concession that skeptics say is merely symbolic since the site may already be too unstable for further testing. In addition, last week, Kim announced an end to nuclear and long-range missile testing. The faith-building measures will continue to raise hopes that the end of the nuclear confrontation with Pyongyang is near, but will likely only be sufficient as a first step for Washington before it commits to billions in economic aid, as expected as part of any denuclearization deal. “I know the Americans are inherently disposed against us, but when they talk with us, they will see that I am not the kind of person who would shoot nuclear weapons to the south, over the Pacific or at the United States,” Kim told Moon, according to the South Korean government spokesman.
Kim’s rapid de-escalation has been dramatic and his comments at Panmunjom continued that trend. Kim did, however, appear to hedge his bet “indicating that denuclearizing his country could be a long process that required multiple rounds of negotiations and steps to build trust,” according to the Times. “But he laid out a vague idea of what his impoverished country would demand in return for giving up its nuclear weapons.”