TOKYO — Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hosted a South Korean presidential delegation for “openhearted” talks over dinner in Pyongyang on Monday, according to the North’s state media, the latest surprising development in a burst of diplomacy that both Koreas hope will stave off threats from the United States.
The 34-year-old North Korean leader has not met another head of state — including the presidents of historical allies China and Russia — since he took over the totalitarian country after his father’s death at the end of 2011.
But now, possibly under pressure from U.S.-led sanctions and concerned about President Trump’s unorthodox style, Kim is suddenly willing to take the olive branches that South Korea has been offering him.
“This shows how desperate he is,” said Choi Jin-wook, who was head of the South’s Korea Institute for National Unification until last year. “His plan to become a nuclear state has almost become successful, but so what? He can’t eat nukes. So now he’s knocking on South Korea’s door.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday sent a 10-member delegation to Pyongyang to begin preparations for an inter-Korean summit, which would be the first in 10 years and the first since Kim took over.
This follows a frenzy of visits linked to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics last month, during which Kim sent his younger sister to Seoul to hand-deliver the summit invitation to Moon.
To prepare for the summit, which Seoul hopes will happen quickly, Moon dispatched a delegation led by Chung Eui-yong, his national security adviser, and including Suh Hoon, chief of the South’s National Intelligence Service.
“I plan to hold in-depth discussions on various ways to continue talks between not only the South and the North, but also the North and the United States and the international community,” Chung told reporters before departing Seoul on Monday afternoon.
The delegation met with officials in the afternoon before having dinner with Kim, his wife Ri Sol Ju and his sister, Kim Yo Jong.
The South Korean Blue House did not release contents of the meeting but said it was “reasonable, educated speculation” to think they discussed denuclearization.
The North’s Korean Central News Agency said only that the two sides reached a “satisfactory” agreement.
Chung, who speaks fluent English and regularly talks to his American counterpart, H.R. McMaster, was specifically chosen to lead the delegation because he would be viewed in Washington as a credible and trustworthy messenger, according to people close to the Blue House.
After returning to Seoul on Tuesday and briefing the president, Chung will immediately travel to Washington to tell Trump administration officials about the meeting.
Some other officials in Moon’s inner circle, notably his chief of staff, are viewed with suspicion in Washington because of previous activities considered sympathetic to North Korea and hostile to the United States.
During his meetings in Pyongyang, Chung will almost certainly bring up the issue of denuclearization, the outside world’s most pressing concern, especially since North Korea last year exploded what was widely agreed to be a hydrogen bomb.
But it is far from clear whether North Korea will be willing to discuss this issue even in the vaguest terms. Pyongyang has said that its weapons are aimed only at the United States and are not a matter of inter-Korean concern.
Since being elected South Korea’s president in May, Moon has repeatedly proffered olive branches to Kim. But he was repeatedly rebuffed, with the North Korean leader preferring to press ahead with his missile- and nuclear-testing programs.
But the international sanctions imposed are approaching an economic blockade, and experts say they are beginning to hurt North Korea.
China said it was “a good thing” that the South Korean delegation had traveled to Pyongyang.
“We look forward to a positive outcome of the meeting,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Monday during a news briefing, according to the Associated Press. “We hope all sides will bear in mind the larger picture of peninsular peace and stability.”
Moon has been increasingly seeking ways to engage with North Korea, diplomatically or economically, as talk in Washington about military options has grown louder. He has repeatedly said that the United States must not strike North Korea without the approval of South Korea, where half the population lives within Northern artillery range.
Trump, for his part, has vacillated between threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea and seeming open to dialogue.
Trump said Saturday that he “won’t rule out direct talks with Kim Jong Un.”
“Now we’re talking. They, by the way, called up a couple of days ago; they said, ‘We would like to talk,’ ” Trump said during a speech at the Gridiron dinner. “And I said, ‘So would we, but you have to denuke.’ ”
It was not immediately clear what Trump was talking about when he said that the North Koreans had called.
Vice President Pence was set to meet the North Korean delegation at the opening of the Olympics, but the North Korean officials pulled out at the last minute, the White House said.
The White House has also said there were no meetings surrounding the closing ceremonies, when the National Security Council official responsible for Korea, Allison Hooker, traveled to South Korea with Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser.
North Korea sent one of its top officials on American affairs to the event, and his schedule in South Korea during the three-day visit remains unknown.
While Trump was making his remarks Saturday, North Korea said it would only talk to the United States if it were on an “equal footing,” without any preconditions. The United States has insisted that North Korea commit to denuclearization before sitting down to talks.
“It is the consistent and principled position of the DPRK to resolve issues in a diplomatic and peaceful way through dialogue and negotiation,” the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Saturday, using a common initialism for North Korea.