Trump agrees to meet with Kim Jong Un in what would be first meeting between U.S. president and North Koreans
President Trump has accepted an extraordinary invitation by North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un to meet this spring, a senior South Korean official announced at the White House on Thursday, signaling a potential diplomatic breakthrough in long-stalled efforts to end the nuclear impasse on the Korean peninsula.
Any face-to-face meeting, if it takes place, would be historic — the first ever between the leaders of two longtime adversaries that fought one bitter war and have repeatedly threatened to fight another. Leaders of the two nations have never even shared a phone call.
Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security director, said in an unusual news conference on the White House lawn that the North Korean ruler had expressed "his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible" and that Trump had agreed to do so May.
Kim has not left North Korea since taking power in 2011, and only a few foreign leaders have visited the country, which has struggled under multiple United Nations and other sanctions for its illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Chung made the announcement after briefing Trump’s top national security aides, including national security advisor H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.
Chung said he was delivering a message to the White House that the North Korean ruler had given him and Suh Hoon, chief of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, this week in Pyongyang, the North’s capital. White House aides denied reports that he had delivered a letter.
The South Korean official said that Kim had agreed to "refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests" and that the North Koreans understood that the U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises that are scheduled for this spring "must continue."
In the past, North Korea has relentlessly denounced those military exercises as a provocation and a pretext for a U.S. invasion, and responded with ballistic missile tests and other threats. The Pentagon had delayed this spring’s planned exercises so they wouldn’t coincide with last month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Chung praised Trump’s "leadership," saying the president’s "maximum-pressure policy, together with international solidarity, brought us to this juncture."
South Korea, the U.S. and their allies "remain fully and resolutely committed to the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," he said, adding that they would "not repeat the mistakes of the past."
Several White House officials stood on the edge of the scrum of reporters as Chung spoke for 2½ minutes by the White House driveway, illuminated by television lights on a bitterly cold winter night. Neither he nor the group of White House aides answered questions as they walked back into the West Wing after the brief announcement.
It was difficult to recall another announcement of such potential significance being made at the White House — but on the lawn — and by a foreign official, not one of the president’s aides.
"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 U.S. and its allies have tried since the early 1990s to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, but every set of negotiations ultimately failed. The chances for success this time appear at least as daunting.
North Korea has successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile in September that appears capable of reaching the continental United States, and U.S. officials say it is fast closing in on the ability to put a nuclear warhead on it.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement that Trump "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."
The South Koreans said that during their meetings on Monday and Tuesday, Kim had offered to freeze further nuclear or ballistic missile tests while talks proceed, and to denuclearize if he was convinced his country faced no military threat and his dynastic government was secure.
Talks also could buy Kim time, with the potential of alleviating punishing economic sanctions that have cut deeply into the country’s foreign reserves, while nothing in place truly curtails his nuclear ambitions.
Another issue is how well prepared Trump could really become ahead of a meeting with Kim. The stakes may be higher than in any of his other meetings with world leaders, and Trump has never been keen to learn the details of vexing issues.
Some members of the administration urged caution, saying that multiple diplomatic attempts to curb North Korea’s nuclear program since the early 1990s all have failed, and that Kim’s government may be seeking to get out of onerous sanctions or buy time to make a more advanced warhead.
Saying the Trump administration had to be "very clear-eyed," he said the first step would be "to have some kind of talks about talks" to set the parameters of any negotiations.
4:14 p.m.: This article was updated with details from the announcement at the White House.