SEOUL — The South Korean government said Sunday that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, had told President Moon Jae-in that he would abandon his nuclear weapons if the United States agreed to formally end the Korean War and promise not to invade his country.
In a confidence-building gesture before a proposed summit meeting with President Trump, a suddenly loquacious and conciliatory Kim also said he would invite experts and journalists from South Korea and the United States to watch the shutdown next month of his country’s only known underground nuclear test site.
In Washington, Trump officials spoke cautiously about the chances of reaching a deal and laid out a plan for the dismantling of the North’s nuclear program, perhaps over a two-year period.
That would be accompanied by a “full, complete, total disclosure of everything related to their nuclear program with a full international verification,” said John R. Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser.
The apparent concessions from the youthful leader were widely welcomed as perhaps the most promising signs yet of ending a standoff on the Korean Peninsula frozen in place since fighting in the Korean War ended 65 years ago.
But skeptics warned that North Korea previously made similar pledges of denuclearization on numerous occasions, with little or no intention of abiding by them. Kim’s gestures, they said, could turn out to be nothing more than empty promises aimed at lifting sanctions on his isolated country.
A South Korean government spokesman, Yoon Young-chan, provided remarkable details of a summit meeting the two Korean heads of state held Friday, when Kim made history by becoming the first North Korean leader to set foot in the South.
“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 Yoon’s account.
It was another in a series of startling statements by Kim, whose country threatened to do exactly those things during the height of nuclear tensions last year.
Kim’s apparent willingness to negotiate away his nuclear arsenal was revealed just as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke for the first time about a “good conversation” he had with Kim during his secret visit to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, over Easter weekend.
Pompeo told ABC News in a broadcast Sunday that the Trump administration’s objective was “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” with North Korea, and that Kim was prepared to “lay out a map that would help us achieve” denuclearization.
“We had an extensive conversation on the hardest issues that face our two countries,” Pompeo said. “I had a clear mission statement from President Trump. When I left, Kim Jong Un understood the mission exactly as I described it today.”
But Bolton, a longtime critic of past diplomacy with North Korea, expressed skepticism Sunday, recalling past moments that looked hopeful. Those would include a commitment by Pyongyang in the 1990s to give up its nuclear program and the destruction of a nuclear power cooling tower in 2008 as part of a similar promise.
“We want to see real commitment,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We don’t want to see propaganda from North Korea. We’ve seen words. We’ve seen words so far.”
Asked about North Korea’s insistence on a promise by the United States not to invade, Bolton noted that was an old demand that had been rolled out before. “We’ve heard this before,” he said. “The North Korean propaganda playbook is an infinitely rich resource.”
Trump sees the chance for a deal with Kim, “a breakthrough nobody would have imagined a few months ago,” Bolton told Fox News, but his administration is not “starry eyed about what may happen here.”
“I think it is going to happen,’’ he said of a summit between Kim and Trump.
On Friday, Kim and Moon signed a joint declaration recognizing “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula” and “complete denuclearization” as a common goal of the two Koreas. But during the summit events, some of which were broadcast live around the world, Kim never publicly renounced his nuclear weapons.
Even in the additional details released Sunday by South Korean officials, Kim appeared to hedge his bets, indicating that denuclearizing his country could be a long process that required multiple rounds of negotiations and steps to build trust.
But he laid out a vague idea of what his impoverished country would demand in return for giving up its nuclear weapons.
Kim, who drove the peninsula close to the brink of war last year by undertaking a series of missile and nuclear tests, has extended an offer to meet Trump, which was accepted.
A week ago, Kim announced an end to all nuclear and long-range missile tests and the closing of the nuclear test site in mountainous Punggye-ri, in northeast North Korea.
Skeptics fear that Kim does not really intend to give up his nuclear weapons and is merely trying to soften his image, escape sanctions, and make it harder for Trump to continue to threaten military action.
But South Korean officials say Kim is sincere in trading his nuclear weapons for a promise to end hostilities and get Washington’s help to improve his economy.