PYONGYANG, North Korea - In what came as a potentially historic breakthrough, South Korean officials announced on Tuesday that following peace talks, North Korea had offered to freeze its illicit nuclear weapons program.
Officials in Seoul said that North Korea was willing to engage in talks with the U.S. and had agreed to fulfil the precondition of freezing is nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
The move, which came as the first sign of ending the nuclear impasse in years, also comes as a victory for the South Korean president and his American counterpart.
The U.S. President Donald Trump, who has implemented an unconventional route to diplomacy with the rogue nation so far in his tenure claimed victory on Tuesday, following the surprise announcement.
During an Oval Office meeting with his Swedish counterpart on Tuesday, Trump called the news "very positive" and said he was open to talks with Pyongyang.
The U.S. President said, "They seem to be acting positively. We're going to see.”
Trump tweeted earlier, “Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea. For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned. The World is watching and waiting! Maybe false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction.”
Trump added, “I think that their statement and the statements coming out of South Korea and North Korea have been very positive. That would be a great thing for the world. So we'll see how it all comes about.”
After South Korea’s announcement, Trump also repeated his assertion that the problem should have been solved by prior presidents but said the nuclear standoff should end.
He said, “We cannot let that situation fester. We cannot let it happen.”
He also called North Korea's participation in the Olympics "terrific," saying it lent a sense of momentum to the situation.
Trump said, "Hopefully, we'll go in the very peaceful, beautiful path. We are prepared to go whichever path is necessary. I think we are having very good dialogue. You are going to certainly find out pretty soon what's happening.”
The announcement comes after South Korea's spy chief and its top national security official returned to Seoul on Tuesday night from a meeting in Pyongyang with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un.
In its announcement, South Korea said that Kim Jong Un had offered to cease any new nuclear tests and missile launches as talks progress.
However, North Korea is yet to officially confirm the South Korean account, and if the overture proves true, it could help ease rising tensions in northeast Asia.
South Korea's government said in a statement, “The North Korean side clearly stated its willingness to denuclearize. 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."
Analysts, however, described the official statement from South Korea as being worded broadly - which they believe could mean Pyongyang will insist the United States cease its annual military exercises with the South, or potentially leave the peninsula entirely.
Currently, the U.S. has over 20,000 troops deployed in South Korea and the North often cites self defence from a possible U.S.-South Korea attack as the reason it continues to intensify its nuclear weapons program.
The impasse that has lasted much of last year, has led to Trump trading insults with the North Korean leader, whom he has described as the “Little Rocket Man.”
Trump has also threatened to unleash “fire and fury" upon North Korea, which retorted each time, with harshly worded editorials and some dangerous missile tests.
Meanwhile, even as both Trump and the South Korean President Moon Jae In touted the positive progress in tough relations - the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence issued a harsher response.
Pence said in a statement that the U.S. and its allies "remain committed to applying maximum pressure on the Kim regime to end their nuclear program. All options are on the table and our posture toward the regime will not change until we see credible, verifiable and concrete steps toward denuclearization."
Further, a senior administration official too sounded a note of caution after the President’s response to the announcement, saying the U.S. is looking for North Korea to take concrete actions or "credible moves" toward denuclearization before agreeing to direct talks.
The official told reporters, "All options are on the table and our posture toward the regime will not change until we see credible moves toward denuclearization. What we are looking for is concrete steps toward denuclearization."
The official also pointed out that a North Korean pledge to stop testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles would not suffice if North Korea privately continues to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
The official said, “If their plan is simply to buy time in order to continue building their arsenal, talks aren't going to get far at all because we've seen that movie before, we've seen it several times and we are not about to make the latest sequel in what would be a very bad ending.”
Since 2013, North Korea has tested four nuclear devices and dozens of ballistic missiles, raising fears it could soon attain the ability to launch a nuclear attack against the United States.
Reacting to the announcement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said his country "stands ready to play a positive role" to ensure the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
China, which is North Korea's largest trading partner, has increasingly enforced United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang.
Trump, who pressurized China all through last year, to push North Korea to denuclearize, has lauded China’s efforts publicly, and on Tuesday, he credited China’s help as "a big help.”
Chun Yung-woo, a onetime national security advisor to former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who took a hard line with the totalitarian North said in a statement, "It's very encouraging. If North Korea has really committed to denuclearizing, that is a positive step forward. I must see if our understanding of North Korea's commitment is the same as what North Korea really means. There are some conditions that must be clarified.”
Kim Byoung-joo, an affiliate professor of foreign studies at Hankuk University said, "No one I know had expected this. It will be very difficult for the U.S. to offer any negative response to this."
Meanwhile, the South Korean President’s office also revealed on Tuesday that the two leaders would try to talk by phone before the next round of inter-Korean talks.