President Donald Trump is to meet Kim Jong Un within weeks, the first summit between the US and North Korea, after Pyongyang offered to suspend nuclear and missile tests.
Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security director, announced the talks outside the White House following meetings with US officials.
“President Trump . . . said he would meet Kim by May to achieve permanent de-nuclearisation,” Mr Chung told reporters as he praised Mr Trump’s leadership.
Mr Trump later hailed the breakthrough but cautioned that the policy of putting pressure on Pyongyang would stay in place.
“Kim Jong Un talked about de-nuclearisation 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!”
South Korean officials delivered the invitation to the Oval Office on Thursday after meeting Mr Kim earlier this week, marking a turnround in communications after the two leaders traded threats of nuclear war over Twitter and television for months.
South Korea’s Kospi index rallied following the announcement, climbing as much as 1.8 per cent before easing to 1.1 per cent gain at the close of trading. The South Korean won strengthened 0.4 per cent against the dollar.
One senior US administration official said the president had backed the move to avoid pitfalls of the past and bypass low-level talks that do not deliver results.
“Kim Jong Un is the one person who is able to make decisions under their uniquely authoritarian, or totalitarian, system,” said the official. “[Mr Trump] expects North Korea to start putting action to these words that were conveyed via the South Koreans.”
The agreement to meet comes a day after Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi called on both parties to hold direct talks.
On Friday Geng Shuang, foreign ministry spokesman, praised the step by both sides, saying China expressed its “full affirmation that the parties concerned are committed to solving problems through dialogue and consultation”.
Japan welcomed the summit but foreign minister Taro Kono said maximum pressure on North Korea must continue until it “completely, verifiably and irreversibly” scraps its nuclear and ballistic weapons. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced an unexpected trip to Washington in April. Japan’s greatest fear is getting cut out of a negotiation between Seoul, Washington and Pyongyang.
Successive US administrations have tried in vain to strike deals with North Korea. Pyongyang has rapidly accelerated its ballistic weapons programme since Mr Kim came to power in 2011, and now claims the capability of striking the US with a nuclear warhead.
One senior US official cautioned on the limited scope of the meeting. “At this point we’re not even talking about negotiations,” the official said. “What we’re talking about is an invitation . . . to meet face-to-face.”
Evan Medeiros, former Asia director at the US National Security Council under Barack Obama, said the meeting was a “mistake”.
“This move is vanity over strategy,” he said. “It validates and advances Kim’s goal of being recognised as a de facto nuclear state. You don’t give away a presidential meeting for nothing. What did we get for this? Nothing.”
South Korean officials, however, say they have extracted a number of concessions from the North. Among them is that Pyongyang would not object to routine large-scale joint military exercises that the US has already once delayed to accommodate the Winter Olympics. They are due to resume next month.
Mr Chung also confirmed that Mr Kim said in their meeting that he was “committed to de-nuclearisation”, and implied that South Korea would continue to support sanctions.
“The pressure will continue until North Korea matches its words with concrete actions,” he said.
The US has led a worldwide pressure campaign against North Korea for more than a year, squeezing its access to revenues by spearheading economic sanctions at the UN, imposing bilateral penalties and pushing allies to go beyond the scope of the UN restrictions.
“Along with President Trump, we are optimistic about continuing a diplomatic process to test the possibility of a peaceful resolution,” said Mr Chung, insisting that South Korea, the US and its other allies would not repeat the mistakes of the past, an apparent reference to a series of previous broken deals.
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Mr Chung spoke alongside his intelligence chief Suh Hoon after meeting senior US officials including defence secretary Jim Mattis, director of national intelligence Dan Coats, national security adviser HR McMaster and the number two at the state department John Sullivan.
But while senior US officials have welcomed the potential opening with polite caution in public, several remain deeply sceptical about the prospects for any deal.
“These are people who are used to deception,” a senior administration official told the Financial Times.
Many worry that Pyongyang will use the lull in tensions to continue to develop its weapons or attempt to extract concessions on sanctions.
The official said the only “acceptable objective” remained the complete, irreversible and verifiable de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
“We’re all committed to that — US, South Korea, Japan and China as well,” the official told the Financial Times. “We all understand how dangerous the situation is and what is at stake.”
It is not yet clear what Mr Trump and Mr Kim may discuss at their first meeting. The White House said the time and place was yet to be determined.
Additional reporting by Charles Clover in Beijing and Robin Harding in Tokyo
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