SEOUL: North Korea agreed on Wednesday to "permanently" abolish its key missile facilities in the presence of foreign experts, and said it is willing to close its main nuclear complex if the United States takes unspecified "reciprocal action".
Speaking at a joint news conference in Pyongyang, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said they agreed to turn the Korean peninsula into a "land of peace without nuclear weapons and nuclear threats" and take "prompt steps" towards the goal.
North Korea was also willing to close its main nuclear complex if the United States took unspecified "reciprocal action", they added.
Kim said he will visit Seoul in the near future, in what would be the first-ever visit to the South's capital by a North Korean leader. Moon said the visit was expected to take place by the end of the year.
The pledges Kim and Moon made at their third summit this year could inject fresh momentum into the stalled nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang and lay the groundwork for another meeting Kim recently proposed to US President Donald Trump.
Kim pledged to work towards the "complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula" during his two meetings with Moon earlier this year and his historic encounter with US President Donald Trump in June.
But discussions over how to implement the vague commitments have since faltered, with Washington demanding concrete action towards denuclearisation by Pyongyang before agreeing to key goals of Pyongyang - declaring an official end to the Korean War and easing tough international sanctions.
Trump called the latest pledges "very exciting".
"Kim Jong Un has agreed to allow Nuclear inspections, subject to final negotiations, and to permanently dismantle a test site and launch pad in the presence of international experts. In the meantime there will be no Rocket or Nuclear testing," Trump wrote on Twitter.
Though North Korea has unilaterally stopped nuclear and missile tests, it did not allow international inspections for a dismantlement of its only known nuclear test site in May, drawing criticism that its action could not be verified and could be easily reversed.
As a next step, North Korea will allow experts from "concerned countries" to watch the closure of its missile engine testing site and launch pad in the northwestern town of Dongchang-ri, Moon said. The facilities have served as a key test centre for its intercontinental ballistic missiles designed at reaching the United States.
The North also "expressed its readiness" to take additional measures, such as a permanent dismantlement of its main nuclear facilities in Yongbyon should there be corresponding measures from the United States, Moon said.
"I think we should take these steps as very positive, but remember that North Korea is still taking baby steps," said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies.
"We don't have a timeline, and we also don't have any guarantees about the larger nuclear and missile programmes. Allowing inspectors to the (Yongbyon) site would be useful, but it depends how much they let them see and what instruments they are allowed to take."
Some experts remained sceptical.
"Kim is playing this brilliantly: verify that I dismantle a single site that I no longer need anyway while I mass produce the missiles the site helped me develop," said Vipin Narang of MIT.
Moon also said the North could close its Yongbyon nuclear facility if Washington takes "corresponding measures" - a significant caveat.
North Korea has consistently refused to give up its nuclear arsenal unilaterally, and stressed that a formal declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War should come first.
Satellite photographs and other evidence in recent months have suggested North Korea is continuing to work on its nuclear programme clandestinely.
The United States has so far failed to convince Pyongyang to declare an inventory of nuclear weapons, facilities and materials, or commit it to a specific timeline for denuclearisation steps. Wednesday's agreement falls short of what US officials have demanded.
According to international experts, Yongbyon houses 5-megawatt reactors, centrifuges, fissile materials used to build bombs, such as uranium and plutonium, and other facilities and equipment.
JOINT OLYMPICS BID
The two Koreas also agreed to pursue a bid to co-host the 2032 Summer Olympic Games, and actively work together in other international competitions including the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
They also adopted a separate military accord aimed at preventing armed clashes between the old foes, which are technically still at war because the Korean War ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.
The neighbours will gradually withdraw guard posts and equipment in a move to transform the world's most heavily fortified border into a no-weapons area, the agreement said.
Later on Wednesday, Moon's delegation will tour the Mansudae Art Studio, the North's largest producer of art where state artists build statues and produce propaganda at a sprawling complex in Pyongyang.
The institution was sanctioned by the UN Security Council last year as part of global efforts to rein in Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programmes by drying up its revenue sources.
Moon is also scheduled to watch the North's signature "Brilliant Fatherland" Mass Game which was reintroduced this year following a five-year hiatus, with a formation of glowing drones, lasers and stadium-sized gymnastics shows designed to glorify the country.
On Thursday, Moon and Kim are to visit Mount Baektu in North Korea.