GOYANG, South Korea—The leaders of North and South Korea agreed to pursue a peace agreement in historic talks on Friday, but steered clear of specifics on the question of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons, leaving uncertainties about the regime’s willingness to cede ground on its arsenal ahead of a meeting between Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.
After an 8½-hour meeting in the demilitarized zone that was heavy on shows of amity between Mr. Kim and Moon Jae-in, his South Korean counterpart, both men agreed to take steps to dial down tensions and start talks with the U.S., and perhaps China, aimed at declaring within the year a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War. The conflict ended in an armistice that has held, despite some skirmishes, for 65 years.
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The sense of forward momentum on the Korean Peninsula carried over to Washington on Friday. “A lot of good things are happening over there, right now, as we speak,” Mr. Trump said at the White House.
Later Friday, when asked if he felt a responsibility to reach a deal with Mr. Kim, Mr. Trump said that he thought he did, and that it was “something I hope I can be able to do for the world.”
The joint statement by the two Korean leaders, called the Panmunjom Declaration, also calls for restarting reunions of families separated by the Korean War, and the establishment of an inter-Korean liaison office on the northern side. As part of the pact, Mr. Moon will travel to Pyongyang in the fall for a summit meeting.
In one surreal moment in a day replete with symbolism, Messrs. Kim and Moon abandoned their aides and strolled side by side to a park bench on a footbridge, where they conversed for more than half an hour—as cameras captured the moment for a rapt South Korean audience.
“We will work towards preventing another horrible war,” Mr. Kim said after signing the joint declaration. “With one language, one culture and one history, North and South Korea will be joined as one nation.”
Mr. Moon, standing next to Mr. Kim, called the pledge by Mr. Kim earlier this month to freeze nuclear testing and long-range missile launches, “a valuable start.”
Both sides said in the joint declaration that they shared the goal of “realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” That language hews to a phrase preferred by Pyongyang that critics of the rapprochement say conditions any North Korean actions on the withdrawal of the U.S. military from South Korea.
The phrase “denuclearization of the peninsula,” said Evan Rees, Asia-Pacific analyst at Stratfor, “could mean movement of U.S. strategic assets, and a phased, rather than a rapid denuclearization—which goes against what the U.S. has called for.”
Notably, the declaration used the word “peace” 11 times, while mentioning “nuclear” or “denuclearization” four times, underscoring the emphasis on lowering tensions and building better ties.
The South had said in the run-up to Friday’s summit meeting that it would raise the issue of denuclearization, likely the focus of coming talks between the U.S. and Korea, but also suggested that peace and improving relations would likely take precedence. The summit bore the theme: “Peace, a New Start.”
The two Koreas can’t replace the armistice agreement on their own. The agreement in 1953 was signed between China, North Korea and the U.S.-led United Nations forces, and the two Koreas said Friday that they would work with Washington and Beijing to replace it with a “permanent and solid peace regime.”
The White House was closely watching the developments as Mr. Trump’s team pieces together plans for a summit with the North Korean leader in coming weeks.
“We have a very good working relationship” with Mr. Kim, Mr. Trump said on Friday. “Things have changed very radically from a few months ago.”
New U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he believed Mr. Kim was serious about reaching a deal.
“The economic pressure that has been put in place by this global effort President Trump has led, has led him to believe it is in his best interest to come to the table and talk about denuclearization,” Mr. Pompeo said in Brussels.
But the pressure will remain, Mr. Pompeo said. “There is a lot of history here. Promises have been made and hopes have been dashed.”
In China, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said: “we applaud the Korean leaders’ historic step and appreciate their political decisions and courage.”
Meanwhile, the Koreas said that they would “strictly adhere” to a nonaggression pact that precludes the use of force, and would carry out disarmament “in a phased manner,” without offering specifics.
But the joint statement left most of the more difficult discussions on North Korea’s nuclear weapons to the planned summit between Messrs. Trump and Kim, which is expected to occur in the coming weeks.
“While Kim’s commitments thus far are reversible and do not represent a strategic decision to denuclearize, the two Koreas have established a basis for conflict prevention and confidence building,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international relations for Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
The next step, Mr. Easley said, was for North Korea to “make concrete progress on denuclearization,” while the South should push forward on engagement projects “that do not dilute the economic sanctions regime.”
“This is as much as you’re going to get at the inter-Korean level,” said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul who favors engagement with the North. “You have to leave something for Donald Trump to do.”
Friday’s meeting, only the third between leaders of the two sides and the first in which a member of the North’s ruling Kim family had ventured south of the Korean Peninsula’s dividing line, was the latest scene in a cross-border detente.
After a string of missile launches that led to war fears last year, Mr. Kim extended an olive branch to the South in a speech in January, kicking off a rapprochement that has included a South Korean pop concert in Pyongyang, the spectacle of dozens of North Korean cheerleaders at Olympic women’s ice-hockey matches, and a near-encounter between Mr. Kim’s younger sister and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the Olympics’ opening ceremony.
But the sight of Mr. Kim crossing into South Korean territory marked the peak in the diplomatic thaw—and captivated the country.
“Ever since I was young, I was raised as a South Korean and North Korea was a different nation. Today was different. Today I felt as if we were a single nation,” said Jae Yu, a 26-year-old university student from Uiwang, near Seoul.
On Friday morning, Mr. Kim walked confidently to the military demarcation line to greet Mr. Moon. He coaxed the South Korean president over into the North side, before both men stepped back across, hand in hand, to the South. The talks were held in Peace House, just inside the South’s territory.
While he appeared short of breath at times, Mr. Kim seemed comfortable and cracked jokes, apologizing to Mr. Moon at one point for having waked him up with early-morning missile launches, and pledging not to do so again, according to Yoon Young-chan, a South Korean presidential spokesman.
When the leaders broke for lunch, Mr. Kim’s Mercedes limousine ferried him back to the north as 12 suited bodyguards jogged in a protective ring around his vehicle.
Among other deals hammered out, the two Koreas agreed to discuss resuming family reunions for those separated by the war. Reunions began after the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, and have been held sporadically as relations have warmed and cooled.
South Korea’s government says that 57,920 of its citizens have family members in the North, more than 80% of whom are age 70 or older. The issue has a particular resonance for Mr. Moon, whose family hails from the North, and who joined his mother on a reunion to meet his aunt in 2004. That trip marked his only journey to the North before Friday’s handshake with Mr. Kim.
Separately, the two sides hinted at economic cooperation, agreeing to work toward modernizing and reconnecting North Korea’s rail lines and roads to the South’s, though a senior official from Seoul’s presidential Blue House said those efforts wouldn’t happen immediately.
Mr. Kim had said earlier in the summit that the North’s transportation system was in poor shape, and that he had heard from North Koreans who visited the South during the Winter Olympics that the South’s railways were more advanced.
There was no explicit mention of the international sanctions against Pyongyang due to its nuclear weapons. Nor was there any indication that the Koreas were considering restarting an inter-Korean industrial complex on the north side of the border, nor planning to reopen a North Korean mountain resort that was once accessible to South Korean tourists.
Messrs. Moon and Kim dined together with their wives and dozens of officials Friday night, before taking part in a farewell ceremony. Finally, Mr. Kim departed the summit in his limousine, returning to North Korea.
—Lingling Wei in Beijing, Yun-hwan Chae in Seoul, Louise Radnofsky in Washington and Julian E. Barnes in Brussels contributed to this article.