President Trump has agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for talks by the end of May, an extraordinary development following months of heightened nuclear tension during which the two leaders exchanged frequent military threats and insults.
Kim has also committed to stopping nuclear and missile testing, even during joint military drills in South Korea next month, Chung Eui-yong, the South Korean national security adviser, told reporters at the White House on Thursday. Chung extended the invitation from Kim to meet while briefing Trump on the four-hour dinner he had with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang on Monday.
After a year in which North Korea fired intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching all of the United States and tested what is widely thought to have been a hydrogen bomb, such a moratorium would be welcomed by the United States and the world.
But there is also significant risk for Trump in agreeing to a meeting apparently without the kind of firm preconditions sought by previous U.S. administrations. There has never been a face-to-face meeting, or even a phone call, between sitting leaders of the two nations because American presidents have been wary of offering the Kim regime the validation of a leaders-level summit on the global stage.
A senior White House official said the North Korean leader’s message included a “commitment to denuclearization” and emphasized that the United States would demand verification that the North is meeting its obligations in any prospective deal. Trump told aides that, leading up to the talks, he expects them to maintain the severe economic sanctions imposed on the North over the past year by his administration and the United Nations, the official said.
The news stunned Washington’s political leadership and foreign policy analysts who as recently as last month were fretting over the possibility of a military conflagration on the Korean Peninsula. Trump and Kim have spent the past year making belligerent statements about each other, with Trump mocking Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and pledging to “totally destroy” North Korea and Kim calling the American president a “dotard” and a “lunatic” and threatening to send nuclear bombs to Washington, D.C.
But renewed dialogue between North and South Korea leading up to and during the Olympics last month offered an opening. Kim has “expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible,” Chung told reporters during a brief statement outside the White House after emerging from the meeting with Trump.
“President Trump said he would meet Kim Jong Un by May,” Chung said, but he did not provide any information on where the meeting would be. In Seoul, the presidential Blue House clarified that the meeting would occur by the end of May.
There was no immediate word on where a meeting would be held, although it would be unprecedented if it took place outside the Korean Peninsula.
The White House confirmed that Trump had accepted Kim’s invitation, which came as a message from Chung rather than in a letter from the North Korean leader. “President Trump greatly appreciates the nice words of the South Korean delegation and President Moon [Jae-in]. He will accept the invitation to meet with Kim Jong Un at a place and time to be determined,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “We look forward to the denuclearization of North Korea. In the meantime, all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain.”
Trump took to Twitter on Thursday night to laud the announcement. “Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!” he wrote.
Former U.S. officials cautioned that the North has made promises before, only to break them. During President George W. Bush’s second term, after talks with the United States and several other nations, the North agreed to freeze parts of its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of some economic sanctions. Then it violated the agreement by testing more missiles.
Danny Russel, who served as senior Asia director at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, noted that the Kim regime has sought talks with the U.S. president as a way to gain legitimacy as a nuclear power.
“They have long said that ‘if the president would engage directly, then who knows what’s possible?’ ” Russel said. “The fact that they’re looking for the face and the legitimization and the validation of direct engagement of the president of the United States is not new. And it’s not inconsistent with their strategy of seeking to be treated like the Soviet Union, seeking to be accepted as a nuclear peer.”
Any meeting between Trump and Kim would be historic. Former president Jimmy Carter met Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, and former president Bill Clinton met his father, Kim Jong Il — during visits to Pyongyang after they had left office. Both Carter and Clinton also went to Pyongyang to collect Americans who had been imprisoned by the regime.
Chung led the South Korean delegation earlier this week to North Korea, where Kim and his senior cadre expressed a willingness to hold talks with the United States and were prepared to discuss denuclearization and normalizing relations.
During the meetings, Kim “made it clear” that the North would not resume provocations while engaged in those talks, Chung said Tuesday upon returning to Seoul.
In front of the White House on Thursday night, Chung credited Trump for bringing the North Korean leader to the table, continuing Seoul’s deliberate efforts to flatter the American president.
“I explained to President Trump that his leadership and his maximum-pressure policy, together with international solidarity, brought us to this juncture,” Chung said.
It was an extraordinary scene — a foreign official, unaccompanied by U.S. leaders, briefing the press at the White House about the American president’s plans. Chung was flanked by Suh Hoon, the head of South Korea’s intelligence agency, who was also at the dinner in Pyongyang, and Cho Yoon-jae, the South Korean ambassador to the United States.
A senior administration official said the White House meeting between Trump and the South Korean officials included senior presidential aides, among them Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general. Trump spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after the meeting, the official said.
“President Trump has been very clear from the beginning, he is not prepared to reward North Korea in exchange for talks,” the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told reporters in a background briefing organized by the White House. “But he is willing to accept the invitation at this time to meet . . . and he expects North Korea to start putting action to the words they conveyed.”
Asked why the administration did not seek to establish lower-level talks as a prerequisite to a presidential summit, the official said lower-level engagement has taken place for 27 years, and “that history speaks for itself.”
“President Trump has a reputation for making deals,” the official added. “Kim Jong Un is the one person able to make decisions in their uniquely totalitarian system, and so it made sense to accept the invitation with the one person who can make decisions instead of repeating the long slog of the past.”
Some analysts agreed with the Trump administration that Kim is suddenly interested in talks because the sanctions are beginning to hurt and because he is genuinely afraid of U.S. military strikes. Trump and his top aides have said that time is running out to blunt the North’s nuclear program, and the White House has privately explored options that include limited strikes on North Korean targets, according to foreign policy analysts who have spoken with administration officials.
“The worst possible thing you can do is meet with President Trump in person and try to play him,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who credited Trump with bringing Kim to the negotiating table, warned in a message to the North posted on Twitter. “If you do that, it will be the end of you — and your regime.”
But others say Kim is feeling more confident than ever. In November, he declared that he had “completed” his missile program and is now ready to deal with the United States — on an equal footing, nuclear state to nuclear state.
The invitation was the result of Kim’s “broad minded and resolute decision” to contribute to the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula, said North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York, who is responsible for handling communications with the United States.
By the “great courageous decision of our Supreme Leader, we can take the new aspect to secure the peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula and the East Asia region,” Pak Song Il wrote in an email to The Washington Post.
The decision to hold the meeting was consistent with North Korea’s principle that the issues should be solved through negotiation, Pak said.
“The United States should know and understand our position and should further contribute to the peace and security-building in the Korean Peninsula with [a] sincere position and serious attitude,” he wrote.
A meeting would be a huge step between the two countries, avowed enemies for 70 years, and particularly between two leaders.
Ahead of the announcement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged caution about any forthcoming talks, despite what he described as “potentially positive signals coming from North Korea.”
“In terms of direct talks with the United States, and you asked negotiations, we’re a long way from negotiations; we just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it,” Tillerson said while on a diplomatic visit to Ethiopia. Officials said Tillerson spoke with Trump about the development before the announcement.
Trump has also repeatedly said he would be willing to talk to Kim. While running for president in 2016, Trump said he wouldn’t host Kim for a state visit but would be happy to sit down for hamburgers at a boardroom table with the North Korean leader.
The North Koreans have been confused by Trump’s unorthodox leadership style, making contact with analysts in Washington with Republican ties. Senior North Korean officials have even read “Fire and Fury,” the explosive book by Michael Wolff about Trump’s White House.
Since he took over the leadership of North Korea from his father at the end of 2011, Kim has not met any other head of state. Discussions are now underway to hold a summit with South Korean President Moon in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas at the end of next month.
Kim sent his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to South Korea at the opening of the Winter Olympics last month to deliver an invitation to Moon for a summit. Preparations are underway for that meeting, set for the end of April, even as the United States and South Korea prepare to begin drills that anger North Korea every year.
There has been no word on the three American men who have been detained in North Korea, one for 2½ years. North Korea has been treating them as prisoners of war and has denied Swedish diplomats, representing the United States in North Korea, consular access to them since June last year.