President Trump has accepted an extraordinary invitation by North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un to meet this spring, White House and South Korean officials said 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.
It would also be fraught with risk, given the unpredictable nature of North Korea’s government and the nuclear stakes.
Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security director, said in an unusual statement to reporters at the White House 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.
It was unclear where the meeting would take place, and South Korean officials later said the meeting would be by the end of 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.
A White House official said later that the fact that a South Korean official announced Trump’s acceptance of Kim’s offer "shows how closely we are coordinating this important topic with our ally South Korea.”
In a tweet, Trump later expressed cautious optimism.
“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.
White House aides scrambled to lower expectations — even as they said Trump deserved credit for the meeting.
“President Trump has been very clear from the beginning that he is not prepared to reward North Korea in exchange for talks. But he is willing to accept an invitation at this time to meet and to allow — and really expects — North Korea to put action to these words that were conveyed via the South Koreans,” a senior administration official said.
At this point, “we aren’t really talking about negotiations,” the official said. “President Trump was elected in part because he is willing to take approaches very, very different from past approaches and past presidents that couldn’t be better exemplified than in his North Korea policy,” the official said.
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.”
Victor Cha, an academic and former National Security Council official who was briefly considered to be Trump's ambassador to South Korea, said details were still too unclear to know whether a rapprochement was possible.
"The question becomes what [are] we putting on [the] table," he said via Twitter. "Sanctions? Normalization? Peace treaty?"
Trump personally hinted at the news when he made his first appearance ever in the White House briefing room Thursday afternoon and told reporters to stay around for “a major announcement” on North Korea, one that clearly met his approval.
Trump and Kim have traded crude insults — “Little Rocket Man” versus “a mentally deranged U.S. dotard” — and harsh threats over the last year, but Trump also said he would be “honored” to meet with Kim under the right circumstances.
Ever since a five-member South Korean delegation returned Tuesday from meeting Kim in Pyongyang, those circumstances suddenly appeared in reach, although far from certain.
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.
In a sign of the fast-moving diplomacy, Kim will meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in next month in the third-ever meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea since their war ended in an uneasy cease-fire in 1953.
Earlier this week, Trump voiced cautious optimism about talks with North Korea, saying he hoped the North Koreans were sincere in their offer to engage in talks. But he said he’s prepared “to go whichever path is necessary.”
Although the surprise proposal served to instantly reduce tension in Northeast Asia, Kim potentially has more to gain than Trump in the high-stakes diplomacy.
He can offer to suspend future nuclear tests, analysts say, because his nuclear program already has tested six devices and already produced an advanced thermonuclear weapon.
Chung’s announcement did not include an offer by Pyongyang to dismantle or destroy a part of its nuclear apparatus, which several analysts said would show a true commitment toward denuclearization, the U.S. goal.
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.
“We’re a long ways from negotiations,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Ethiopia, where he was on a five-nation tour of Africa, before Chung’s announcement.
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.
“I don’t know yet, until we are able to meet ourselves face-to-face with representatives of North Korea, whether the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations,” Tillerson added.
The apparent thaw began on Jan. 1 when Kim offered to send a North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February.
Vice President Mike Pence, who headed the U.S. delegation to the Olympics, had planned a secret meeting in South Korea with Kim’s younger sister. But the North Koreans canceled the meeting after Pence said the U.S. was about to impose stiff new sanctions.