U.S. President Donald Trump has accepted an invitation to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by the end of May — a stunning and unexpected announcement that comes as the two historic adversaries dial back threats of nuclear annihilation and attempt to reach a deal on the issue of scrapping the North’s nuclear weapons program.
“A meeting is being planned,” Trump tweeted just hours after speaking to South Korean national security chief Chung Eui-yong, who announced that the U.S. leader had expressed a willingness to sit down with Kim “as soon as possible” in what will be his biggest foreign policy gamble since taking office.
“In our meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he is committed to denuclearization,” Chung said. “Kim pledged that North Korea will refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests. He understands that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue. And he expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible.
“President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he will meet Kim Jong Un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization,” he added.
Chung credited Trump with the detente, saying that “his leadership, and his ‘maximum pressure’ policy, together with international solidarity, brought us to this juncture,” adding that South Korean President Moon Jae-in had expressed his “personal gratitude” for Trump’s leadership.
The White House confirmed that Trump has accepted the invitation to meet Kim “at a place and time to be determined” and Trump, in his tweet, said the pressure push will continue.
“Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!” he wrote.
The White House meeting between Trump and the South Korean officials included senior presidential aides, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, a senior administration official said in a teleconference. Trump spoke with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after the meeting, the official said.
Asked why the talks will begin with the president and not at a lower-level, the official said that Trump was elected to take a different approach. 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 said on condition of anonymity. “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.”
At the White House, Chung said that South Korea, the U.S. and Japan “and our many partners around the world remain resolutely committed to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
He said Washington and Seoul “are optimistic about the possibility of a peaceful resolution,” adding that they stand together “in insisting that we not repeat the mistakes of the past” and that “the pressure will continue until North Korea matches these words with concrete actions.”
Moon later Friday hailed the agreed-upon summit as a “historic milestone” for peace on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted him as saying.
“If President Trump and Chairman Kim meet following an inter-Korean summit, complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula will be put on the right track in earnest.”
Moon also extended his thanks to Trump and Kim for their “courage and wisdom.”
“In particular, the leadership of President Trump, who gladly accepted Chairman Kim’s invitation, will receive praise not only from people in the South and the North, but also from people around the world,” Moon said.
The dramatic announcement came after a South Korean delegation led by Chung visited the White House on Thursday to brief officials on its most recent talks earlier this week with North Korea — the most significant meeting between the two countries in more than a decade.
Seoul had already said that Pyongyang had offered talks with the United States on denuclearization and normalizing ties, providing a diplomatic opening after a year of escalating tensions over the North’s nuclear and missile tests. The rival Koreas also agreed to hold a summit in which Kim would meet Moon in late April.
No serving American president has ever met with a North Korean leader — and Washington and Pyongyang do not even have formal diplomatic relations. The two nations remain in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice and not a peace treaty, with some 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
North Korea has hosted world leaders before, including then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi In 2002 and 2004, when Koizumi met the country’s leader at the time, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang to press for the return of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents. The North has also hosted leaders from South Korea, Russian President Vladimir Putin and several generations of Chinese leaders. Former U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton also separately visited the country in 1994 and 2009, respectively.
Trump took office vowing to prevent North Korea from attaining a nuclear-tipped missile that would put the U.S. mainland within striking distance. He has vacillated between threats and insults directed at Kim, and more conciliatory rhetoric. His more bellicose words, and Kim’s nuclear and missile tests, have fueled fears of a bloody war on the peninsula that could engulf the wider region.
The U.S. leader, who together with American allies and Russia and China has tightened the sanctions noose on the North to force it to negotiate on giving up its nukes, has threatened to “totally destroy” the isolated nation with “fire and fury” if its threats against the U.S. and its allies continue.
He has also derided Kim by referring to him as “Little Rocket Man.” Kim, for his part, responded by blasting Trump as “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”
But for most of last year — despite the ramped-up pressure campaign, which saw Pyongyang slapped with a series of international and unilateral sanctions, the expelling of its diplomats from embassies across the globe and a crackdown on illicit regime fundraising — the North maintained its torrid pace of nuclear and ballistic-missile testing. These included the launch of two intermediate-range missiles over Japan and the test of a longer-range missile that experts believe is capable of striking most of the U.S. The isolated regime also conducted its most powerful nuclear blast to date in September, which the North claimed was of a thermonuclear weapon.
The White House has repeatedly said that “all options remain on the table,” including military action, to rein in North Korea’s nuclear drive — a prospect that has stoked concern in Seoul, Tokyo and even in Washington.
But the recent thaw in intra-Korean ties has lessened concerns of a war that one U.S. lawmaker warned would be “very brief” and “of biblical proportions.”
Trump has previously said he was willing to meet Kim under the right circumstances — telling a crowd on the campaign trail in 2016 that he would be willing to sit down with the North Korean leader for a hamburger. But he had indicated in recent months that the time was not currently right for such talks, even mocking U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in October for “wasting his time” trying to broker talks with Pyongyang.
Earlier Thursday, Tillerson had said during a visit to Africa that although “talks about talks” might be possible with Pyongyang, denuclearization negotiations are likely a long way off.
Regional security experts hailed the prospect of talks amid the heightened tensions, but expressed astonishment over the bombshell announcement, with some warning that Trump may have waded into the issue without a long-term plan.
“I’m surprised by how quickly events moved,” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat specializing in North Korea. “I’m willing to bet Donald Trump agreed to the summit offer as soon as he found out, while the rest of the bureaucracy caught up later.”
Oba said the invitation by Kim “was a smart move for the North Koreans to take the initiative and propose this summit because they look like they’re acting in good faith.
“It gives them a lever to pressure the United States to reciprocate on their terms,” he said. “It’s possible the North Koreans may even threaten to cancel at some point if they don’t approve of something the United States has done or said, calculating that Trump would not want the loss of face of losing his summit opportunity.”
Still, Oba said the U.S. could regain the initiative by bringing “an ambitious and creative proposal to the summit.”
“This offers a very public and high-profile stage to do that,” he said.
However, in gearing up for the talks, Trump and his administration will have its work cut out for itself.
U.S. officials and experts, speaking to Reuters before Thursday’s announcement, cautioned that North Korea could buy time to build up and refine its nuclear arsenal, including refining a warhead able to survive re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, if it manages to drag out any talks with Washington.
The Trump administration also enters the fray without a full stable of experienced diplomats to lead the way.
Joseph Yun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, announced he was retiring last month, and the post of American ambassador to Seoul remains unfilled more than a year into Trump’s term in office.
But perhaps more important than staffing issues will be squelching the widespread view that the mercurial Trump, himself, could be the biggest challenge to solving the vexing North Korea crisis.
“Talks with North Korea are a good idea; talks involving Trump are a very bad idea,” said Van Jackson, a North Korea expert and former policy adviser in the U.S. office of the secretary of defense.
Jackson dismissed claims by some that Trump, as a successful businessman and political outsider, can make a deal that nobody else has been able to.
“Trump can do stupid things that nobody else would ever do, but shouldn’t be equated with good outcomes,” he said.
But Jackson said that given North Korean mistrust of the U.S. that “runs generations-deep, there’s no way North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons on the basis of interacting with Trump.”
“It might pretend to,” he said. “It might go through the kabuki theater of denuclearization talks, but at the end of the day it’ll still have nuclear-armed missiles. Guaranteed. And that means Trump is being played, and by extension the United States is being played. Kim Jong Un is playing a bad hand brilliantly. He’s strategic and we’re not; it’s that simple.”
Ultimately, Jackson said, “Trump likes taking gratuitous risks. There’s no theory of the case behind it; just a perverted version of ‘fortune favors the bold.’
“Unfortunately the costs of his gamble if he’s wrong will cost lots of people’s lives and probably America’s position in Asia,” he said.
Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in Washington, said that while accepting Kim’s invitation is “a gamble,” given that North Korea is “on the verge of technology that could threaten the U.S., bold diplomacy is called for . . . the alternative is to edge closer and closer to war.”
“But negotiating a verifiable denuclearization will take far more than one meeting. Managing the differing interests of our allies will be tough, as will be managing China and Russia throughout a process of negotiation,” she said.
“The future of Northeast Asia is at stake.”