US President Donald Trump has agreed to meet Kim Jong Un within weeks after the North Korean leader extended an invitation and offered to suspend nuclear and missile tests, following months of tension between the two countries.
The surprise announcement came from Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security director, on White House grounds following high-level talks.
“President Trump officiated the briefing and said he would meet Kim by May to achieve permanent de-nuclearisation,” he told reporters outside the White House, praising Mr Trump’s leadership effusively.
South Korean officials delivered the invitation to the White House on Thursday after meeting with Mr Kim earlier this week, marking a breakthrough in communications after the two leaders traded threats of nuclear war over Twitter and television for months.
Mr Trump himself had earlier excitedly tipped off journalists about the coming announcement with a surprise appearance in the press briefing room.
South Korean officials appear to have extracted a number of concessions from the North. Among others, Pyongyang would not object to routine large-scale joint military exercises that the US has already once delayed to accommodate the Winter Olympics in Seoul.
Mr Chung also confirmed that Mr Kim said in their meeting that he “is committed to de-nuclearisation”.
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.
Mr Chung spoke alongside his intelligence chief Suh Hoon after meeting senior officials from across the US government, including national security adviser HR McMaster and John Sullivan, the number two at the state department.
“The pressure will continue until North Korea matches its words with concrete actions,” he added.
But while senior US officials have welcomed the potential opening with polite caution in public, they 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 ahead of the talks.
The official said that the only “acceptable objective” remains 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 FT. “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.
Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, also expressed caution earlier on Thursday from Addis Ababa during his current tour of Africa. “In terms of direct talks with the United States . . . we’re a long ways from negotiations,” he said.
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