North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has “given his word” that he is committed to denuclearizing, South Korea’s top diplomat said Sunday, a key condition for a potential summit with U.S. President Donald Trump planned for May.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said in an interview aired Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that South Korea has asked the North “to indicate in clear terms the commitment to denuclearization,” a request she said Kim had agreed to.
“He’s given his word. But the significance of his word is … quite weighty in the sense that this is the first time that the words came directly from the North Korean supreme leader himself,” Kang said. “That has never been done before.”
Kang, who was in Washington for talks with American officials on the North Korean nuclear issue and trade, also addressed Pyongyang’s silence on the proposed summit with Trump, after the U.S. president accepted an invitation on March 8 to meet Kim. Trump had been briefed earlier that day by top South Korean officials who had met Kim in Pyongyang.
She said Kim — and Seoul — had likely been taken aback by the speed of the decision, which she called “extremely courageous.”
Any summit would be the first time a sitting American president has met a North Korean leader.
In regards to planning, Kang said a channel of communication between Pyongyang and Seoul and the U.S. has been established, adding, “I’m sure there are back and forth messages.”
“But, I think the North Korean leader would also need some time, given the readiness with which President Trump has accepted the invitation to talks.”
Kang said Kim was likely “taking stock” of the surprise decision.
“We give them the benefit of the doubt, and the time that he would need to come out with some public messaging,” she added.
She said nothing has been offered to the North Koreans to engage in negotiations, and South Korea made it clear “there will be no reward for dialogue.”
On Monday, South Korea’s presidential Blue House said top national security advisers from the U.S., South Korea and Japan met over the weekend to discuss North Korea and the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” as well as the summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the possible Trump-Kim meeting.
The two days of meetings were the latest in a flurry of diplomatic activity that has spanned Asia, the United States and Europe.
North Korean officials on Saturday wrapped up three days of talks with Swedish officials in Stockholm, and further meetings were expected in Finland this week. Sweden provides consular services as a protecting power for the United States in North Korea.
The officials gave no indication where the summit invitation stands, but media reports said Sweden had requested the release of three Americans detained in North Korea.
Seoul-based MBC TV station reported Sunday that Pyongyang and Washington had “practically reached” a final agreement on the release of U.S. citizens Kim Hak-song, Tony Kim and Kim Dong-chul.
“They are hammering out details over the timing of the release,” it quoted an unidentified South Korean diplomatic source as saying.
Asked if Seoul trusted Kim, Kang said: “It’s not a matter of trusting. It’s a matter of discussing, and pressing for action. And once you see those actions, then you move forward further.”
Some observers, however, have voiced skepticism over Seoul’s seemingly rosy analysis of Kim’s comments.
“South Korea has every interest in interpreting events in the most positive light and getting some momentum toward U.S.-North Korea talks,” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official who worked on North Korean affairs.
It is important, he said, that the U.S. itself test the North’s “intentions and flexibility.”
“Skepticism makes sense, but it shouldn’t deter from us trying to take advantage of what may be an opening, no matter how small,” he said.
Oba said that by accepting the invitation to meet Kim, the U.S. leader “has now gained a high-profile stage for the United States to retake the initiative, and he ought to bring some bold and creative proposal to define the summit.”
But, he warned, “if Trump doesn’t take the initiative, Kim will do so on his own terms.”
Nuclear concerns aside, Seoul has also faced off with Washington over trade issues, including hints by the U.S. president that he might roll back military support, according to an audio recording of a speech Trump delivered last week to donors in Missouri, which was obtained by The Washington Post.
Kang said in the interview that those remarks did not go unnoticed.
“Any time troops are mentioned, it raises eyebrows,” she said. “It has caught attention, but we are absolutely confident of the American commitment to the alliance and the troop presence in our country.”
South Korea plays host to some 28,500 U.S. troops.
Seoul is lobbying Washington for an exemption from Trump’s planned tariff on steel imports, the timing of which she said was “not helpful.”
Trump has already excluded Australia and, at least temporarily, Mexico and Canada, from a 25 percent tariff on steel and the 10 percent levy on aluminum, and the U.S. is mulling what other countries, including Japan, should be spared.