President Donald Trump has agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the White House announced, setting the scene for an unprecedented encounter between two nations that only recently threatened to wipe each other out.
The talks would be the first between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader and will take place by May, according to South Korea’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, who delivered the invitation to Trump after a visit by his delegation to Pyongyang earlier this week. Chung said Kim had offered to put Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program on the table.
The White House said Trump had agreed to the encounter. “He will accept the invitation to meet with Kim Jong Un at a place and time to be determined,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.
Trump’s decision, after a year in which the two have repeatedly traded insults, is a remarkable breakthrough. It brings the North Korean regime close to its long-desired aim of recognition on the international stage, and offers Trump the tantalizing prospect of a historic diplomatic victory. But the consequences of such a high-stakes gamble remain hard to predict.
The South Korean delegation, which landed in Washington, D.C. for a debriefing Thursday on the North-South talks, was careful to praise Trump’s influence over the developments. Chung said the US President’s “leadership” and his administration’s pressure on the North Korean regime had “brought us to this juncture.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement that Trump “greatly appreciates the nice words” of the delegation and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
“He will accept the invitation to meet with Kim Jong Un at a place and time to be determined. We look forward to the denuclearization of North Korea. In the meantime, all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain.”
Trump tweeted that “great progress” had been made but there would be no prospect of lifting sanctions until a deal was reached.
South Korea’s President Moon described the announcement as “historic” and thanked both leaders for seeking a diplomatic solution to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
“This is an almost miraculous event; my administration will prepare toward the May meeting with utmost diligence,” he said in remarks read out in Seoul by a Blue House spokesman.
Geng Shuang, a spokesman at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the development was positive, and it was a moment to show “political courage.” But he stressed that China would continue to maintain sanctions on North Korea until a political settlement was reached.
Other regional powers reacted cautiously. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talked to President Donald Trump on the phone to reiterate the necessity of maintaining pressure on North Korea.
Abe, briefing reporters after the call, said that the US and Japan had agreed to “keep putting maximum pressure until North Korea takes concrete actions toward denuclearization.”
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said her government welcomed “any dialogue with North Korea” but warned that “North Korea has a history of making agreements and then failing to honour them.”
Bishop said that, during any talks, Pyongyang must abide by its United Nations obligations to refrain from nuclear and missile tests.
The stunning announcement was the culmination of a diplomatic whirlwind that began with the invitation of a North Korean delegation to attend the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. That event became the venue for a series of carefully orchestrated diplomatic overtures, which were reciprocated with a visit by a South Korean delegation to Pyongyang.
During the visit, Kim reportedly joked over dinners of Korean hotpot and cold noodles. At one meeting, he said previous missile tests had caused Moon to schedule early morning national security meetings. “I decided today (to freeze the tests) so he will not lose sleep anymore,” he said, according to a South Korean presidential official.
Kim and the officials shared several bottles of wine, liquor made of ginseng and Pyongyang soju, the official said. “The bottles kept coming,” said another administrative source who had official knowledge of the meeting.
The alcohol-fueled diplomacy ended in dramatic fashion at the White House on Thursday.
Chung, the South Korean national security adviser, arrived at the White House shortly before 2:30 p.m. to meet with his US counterpart, H.R. McMaster.
Just minutes after 5 p.m., Trump poked his head in the White House briefing room to tell reporters South Korea would be making a “major announcement.”
Chung’s delegation appeared outside the West Wing about two hours later. In a brief statement to reporters, Chung said Kim “expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible.”
The North Korean leader had told the South Koreans “he is committed to denuclearization” and pledged that North Korea would “refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests,” Chung said. Kim also told the South Koreans he understands that the US and South Korea would move forward with their joint military exercises later this year.
Moments later, the White House confirmed that Trump had accepted Kim’s invitation to meet.
There are many details to be ironed out before any meeting could take place, not least the location. The Panmunjom truce village in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), one possible venue, hosted meetings between North and South Korea in the run-up to the Winter Olympics.
Sanctions to remain in place
Since Trump came into office, the US has leveled some of its most significant and far-reaching sanctions against North Korea and has also succeeded in pressuring China to further isolate the regime. That pressure would not abate as the US heads toward the historic talks, the White House said.
Trump reiterated the US stance on sanctions. “Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze,” he tweeted. “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!”
A host of questions lingered over Trump’s remarkable decision, which signaled a break with the administration’s thinking just days — even hours — earlier.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters traveling with him in Ethiopia earlier on Thursday that the US was “a long way from negotiations.”
“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.
Trump’s approach to North Korea has wavered between bellicose rhetoric and expressions of openness to diplomacy — with the President saying one day that the US would rain “fire and fury” on North Korea and then saying he would consider speaking directly with the country’s leader under the right circumstances.
On the campaign trail he signaled more than once that he would be open to direct talks, but more recently belittled Tillerson’s attempts to bring Kim to the negotiating table.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” he tweeted in October, using his disparaging nickname for the North Korean leader.
The White House did not say why it had changed its calculus toward North Korea by agreeing to talks without “concrete steps toward denuclearization.”
But a senior administration official said Trump had accepted Kim’s invitation to meet because “it makes sense to accept an invitation to meet with the one person who can actually make decisions,” even though past US-North Korea talks have taken place at a lower level.
“President Trump was elected in part because he is willing to do — take approaches very, very different from past approaches and past presidents. That couldn’t be better exemplified in his North Korea policy,” the official said Thursday evening.
The official added that “President Trump has made his reputation on making deals” and Kim “is the one person who is able to make decisions under their authoritarian — or totalitarian — system.”