In a historic diplomatic breakthrough, President Donald Trump accepted an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to meet "as soon as possible." News of the summit was announced by a senior South Korean official at the White House Thursday evening.
Michael R. Gordon and
Louise Radnofsky in Washington and
Jonathan Cheng in Seoul
President Donald Trump accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the White House said Thursday, a meeting that would mark the first time a serving U.S. president has sat down with the leadership of the heavily militarized and diplomatically isolated country.
The leader-to-leader meeting, which American officials said would take place within the next few months at a location yet to be determined, is a potential turning point after more than six decades of confrontation involving North Korea, its southern neighbor and South Korea’s allies.
But it also stands to sharply raise the diplomatic stakes in one of the world’s most volatile standoffs.
American officials acknowledged that it was unusual for such a face-to-face session to be arranged without an extensive series of preparatory meetings between lower-ranking officials. But they asserted that it was justified because Mr. Kim was the only person able to make decisions in his “uniquely authoritarian” regime and that Mr. Trump was known as a deal maker.
“At this point we are not even talking about negotiations,” a senior U.S. official said, while stressing that the U.S.’s ultimate goal was complete denuclearization by North Korea, subject to stringent verification.
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Progress in an encounter between two strong-willed leaders could set the terms for painstaking negotiations, carried out by aides, to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal in return for security guarantees. But a failure by Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim to make headway could lead each side to double down on their demands and perhaps heighten the possibility of conflict.
By all accounts, the obstacles to an agreement are formidable. Just last month, U.S. intelligence agencies predicted that North Korea would press ahead with more missile tests and would resist negotiating away its nuclear arsenal.
But on Thursday, South Korea’s national-security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, conveyed Mr. Kim’s invitation to meet and noted that North Korea had promised to suspend nuclear and missile tests while it engages in talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
In a tweet, Mr. Trump said he believed he was seeing “great progress” from North Korea.
“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.
South Korea’s national-security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, center, announced Kim Jong Un’s invitation in front of the White House. Photo: mandel ngan/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Mr. Trump spoke Thursday evening with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is traveling in Africa. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan was at meetings at the White House Thursday, with top White House officials and the South Korean representatives who brought the offer from Mr. Kim.
Based on initial reactions, the coming days will bring debate over the implications posed by talks: Does a leader-to-leader meeting elevate and legitimize Mr. Kim; will it defuse tensions or complicate them; would it make the prospect of war more remote, if talks succeed, or more imminent, if they collapse?
“Skepticism and caution are critical as these discussions continue,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
If high-level talks get under way, a key question will be what North Korea and the U.S. mean when they talk about “denuclearization.” The underlying assumption of American policy has long been that it means a North Korea without any nuclear weapons or a nuclear-weapons program.
But to the North Koreans, the term could mean much less than that. The North may define denuclearization as a long-term goal that would only be achieved after the U.S. withdraws troops from South Korea and effectively ends the U.S.-South Korean military alliance. One former official says that to be negotiable, denuclearization could mean a freeze in North Korean missile and nuclear testing now, followed by an understanding that no further weapons will be built, with the goal of actually eliminating the weapons already have built years down the road.
Lawmakers from both parties on Thursday welcomed Mr. Trump’s decision to talk to Mr. Kim, though some expressed reservations.
Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the Trump administration must ensure Pyongyang’s offer isn’t a bid to buy time to work on its program.
“North Korean regimes have repeatedly used talks and empty promises to extract concessions and buy time,” he said. “We’ve got to break this cycle.”
But a failure of the high-stakes diplomatic bid shouldn’t become a pretext for armed conflict, said Sen. Ed Markey (D., Mass.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “If the talks between the two leaders do not go well, it is not an excuse to justify military action for a situation that has no military solution.”
North Korea’s leaders have never met a sitting U.S. president, though Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton met with Mr. Kim’s grandfather and father, respectively, after they left the White House.
Unusually, Mr. Trump’s decision wasn’t first announced by the White House. Instead, Mr. Chung and South Korea’s intelligence chief, Sun Hoon, stood at microphones outside the White House Thursday evening to announce Mr. Kim’s offer and Mr. Trump’s acceptance. The White House confirmed it later.
They said Mr. Kim had confirmed that he was prepared to suspend nuclear weapons and missile tests and agreed to discuss eliminating his nation’s nuclear arsenal.
They also said Mr. Kim wouldn’t object to U.S.-South Korean military maneuvers, scheduled to take place next month in the region.
The move is the latest twist in a long saga of failed diplomacy and threats issues by both sides. During his first year in office, Mr. Trump has swung between angry denunciations of Mr. Kim and suggestions that he was willing to sit down with the North Korean leader.
In a September appearance at the U.N., Mr. Trump said the U.S. would “totally destroy North Korea” if attacked and vowed that Mr. Kim would not survive the devastations. “Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself,” Mr. Trump said.
In a January news conference at Camp David, Mr. Trump said he was open to speaking to Mr. Kim if he could lead to a peaceful resolution of the American demands that Pyongyang give up its nuclear arsenal. “I always believe in talking,” he said.
—Andrew Jeong in Seoul and Felicia Schwartz in Washington contributed to this article.
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