North Korea is willing to hold talks with the United States on denuclearization and will suspend nuclear tests while those talks are under way, the South said on Tuesday after a delegation returned from the North where it met leader Kim Jong-un.
North and South Korea, still technically at war but enjoying a sharp easing in tension since the Winter Olympics in the South last month, will also hold their first summit in more than a decade next month at the border village of Panmunjom, the head of the delegation, Chung Eui-yong, told a media briefing.
"North Korea made clear its willingness to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and the fact there is no reason for it to have a nuclear program if military threats against the North are resolved and its regime is secure," the head of the delegation, Chung Eui-yong, told a media briefing.
He also cited the North as saying it would not carry out nuclear or missile tests while talks with the United States were under way. North Korea has not carried out any such tests since November last year.
Washington and Pyongyang have been at loggerheads for months over the North's nuclear and missile programs, with US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un trading insults and threatening war. North Korea has regularly vowed never to give up its nuclear program, which it sees as an essential deterrent against US plans for invasion.
The United States, which stations 28,500 troops in the South, a legacy of the Korean War, denies any such plans.
To ensure close communication, the two Koreas, whose 1950-53 conflict ended in a mere truce, not a peace treaty, will set up a hotline between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un, Chung said.
The last inter-Korean summit was in 2007 when late former president Roh Moo-hyun was in office.
The agreement came on the heels of a visit made by a 10-member South Korean delegation led by Chung to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, on Monday in hopes of encouraging North Korea and the United States to talk to one another.
Kim Jong-un met senior South Korean government officials for the first time and said it was his "firm will to vigorously advance" inter-Korean ties and pursue reunification, the North's official news agency said.
Tensions between the two Koreas eased during the Olympics in South Korea, where Moon hosted a high-level North Korean delegation and the two sides presented a joint women's ice hockey team. Kim Jong-un had invited Moon to North Korea for a summit, which was the first such request from a North Korean leader to a South Korean president.
US-South Korea drills to go on
North Korea has boasted of developing nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the United States, in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, but Pyongyang and Washington both say they want a diplomatic solution to the standoff.
The first inter-Korean talks in more than two years were held early this year to bring North Korea to the Winter Olympics, when South Korea and the United States also postponed an annual joint large-scale military exercise that North Korea views as a preparation for invasion.
During this week's visit, a senior Blue House official said North Korea was informed it was not feasible to postpone the joint military drills between South Korea and the United States again and that Kim Jong-un acknowledged the situation.
Kim Jong-un said he also understood the drills, expected in April, would be of a similar scale seen in previous years, the official said.
The South's delegation leader, Chung, said he would travel to the United States to explain the outcome of the visit to North Korea and that he had a message from North Korea he will deliver to Trump.
Chung will later visit China and Russia, while Suh Hoon, the head of South Korea's spy agency and another member of the delegation, will head to Japan.
Both North Korea and the United States have said before they are open to talks but the US position has been that dialogue must be aimed at North Korea's denuclearization, something Pyongyang has rejected.
Moon has also remained vigilant against North Korea's weapons ambitions, saying on Tuesday South Korea should bolster its defenses in tandem with talks with Pyongyang.
The Pentagon has nevertheless said it was "cautiously optimistic" about the North-South talks, which resumed in January for the first time in two years.
By Christine Kim/Reuters
Reporting by Christine Kim; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul, David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie.