Trump accepts invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
TOKYO - President Donald Trump has agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for talks, an extraordinary development following months of heightened nuclear tension during which the two leaders exchanged frequent military threats and insults.
Kim has also committed to stopping nuclear and missile testing, even during joint military drills in South Korea next month, Chung Eui-yong, the South Korean national security adviser, told reporters at the White House on Thursday night after briefing the president on his four-hour dinner meeting with Kim in Pyongyang on Monday.
After a year in which North Korea fired intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching all of the United States and tested what is widely thought to have been a hydrogen bomb, such a moratorium would be welcomed by the United States and the world.
Trump and Kim have spent the past year making belligerent statements about each other, with Trump mocking Kim as ‘‘Little Rocket Man’’ and pledging to ‘‘totally destroy’’ North Korea and Kim calling the American president a ‘‘dotard’’ and a ‘‘lunatic’’ and threatening to send nuclear bombs to Washington, D.C.
But Kim has ‘‘expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible,’’ Chung told reporters.
‘‘President Trump said he would meet Kim Jong Un by May,’’ Chung said, but he did not provide any information on where the meeting would be. In Seoul, the presidential Blue House clarified that the meeting would occur by the end of May.
The White House confirmed that Trump had accepted Kim’s invitation to meet, which came as a message from Chung rather than in a letter from the North Korean leader.
‘‘President Trump greatly appreciates the nice words of the South Korean delegation and President Moon. He will accept the invitation to meet with Kim Jong Un at a place and time to be determined,’’ White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. ‘‘We look forward to the denuclearization of North Korea. In the meantime, all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain.’’
Trump took to Twitter on Thursday night to laud the announcement. ‘‘Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!’’ he wrote.
Any meeting between Trump and Kim would be historic - there has never been a face-to-face negotiation, or even a phone call, between the sitting leaders of North Korea and the United States. Former president Jimmy Carter met Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, and former president Bill Clinton met his father, Kim Jong Il - during visits to Pyongyang after they had left office. Both Carter and Clinton also went to Pyongyang to collect Americans who had been imprisoned by the regime.
Chung led the South Korean delegation earlier this week to North Korea, where Kim and his senior cadre expressed a willingness to hold talks with the United States and were prepared to discuss denuclearization and normalizing relations.
During the meetings, Kim ‘‘made it clear’’ that the North would not resume provocations while engaged in those talks, Chung said Tuesday upon returning to Seoul.
In front of the White House Thursday night, Chung credited Trump for bringing the North Korean leader to the table, continuing Seoul’s deliberate efforts to flatter the American president.
‘‘I explained to President Trump that his leadership and his maximum-pressure policy, together with international solidarity, brought us to this juncture,’’ Chung said.
It was an extraordinary scene - a foreign official, unaccompanied by U.S. leaders, briefing the press at the White House about the American president’s plans. Chung was flanked by Suh Hoon, the head of South Korea’s intelligence agency, who was also at the dinner in Pyongyang, and Cho Yoon-jae, the South Korean ambassador to the United States.
A senior administration official said the White House meeting between Trump and the South Korean officials included senior presidential aides, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general. Trump spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after the meeting, the official said.
Trump emphasized during the meeting that the severe economic sanctions his administration and the United Nations have levied on North Korea over the past year must remain in place.
‘‘President Trump has been very clear from the beginning, he is not prepared to reward North Korea in exchange for talks,’’ the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told reporters in a background briefing organized by the White House. ‘‘But he is willing to accept the invitation at this time to meet . . . and he expects North Korea to start putting action to the words they conveyed.’’
The official said that the administration would require ‘‘verification’’ of the North’s dismantling of its nuclear program if an agreement is reached between the countries. ‘‘We will settle for nothing less than that outcome,’’ the official said.
Asked why the administration did not seek to establish lower-level talks as a prerequisite to a presidential summit, the official said lower-level engagement has taken place for 27 years, and ‘‘that history speaks for itself.’’
‘‘President Trump has a reputation for making deals,’’ the official added. ‘‘Kim Jong Un is the one person able to make decisions in their uniquely totalitarian system, and so it made sense to accept the invitation with the one person who can make decisions instead of repeating the long slog of the past.’’
Some analysts agreed with the administration that Kim is suddenly interested in talks because the sanctions are beginning to hurt and because he is genuinely afraid of U.S. military strikes.
But others say that he’s feeling more confident than ever. In November, Kim declared that he had ‘‘completed’’ his missile program and is now ready to deal with the United States - on an equal footing, nuclear state to nuclear state.
The invitation was the result of Kim’s ‘‘broad-minded and resolute decision’’ to contribute to the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula, said North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York, who is responsible for handling communications with the United States.
By the ‘‘great courageous decision of our Supreme Leader, we can take the new aspect to secure the peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula and the East Asia region,’’ Pak Song Il wrote in an email to The Washington Post.
The decision to hold the meeting was consistent with North Korea’s principle that the issues should be solved through negotiation, Pak said.
‘‘The United States should know and understand our position and should further contribute to the peace and security-building in the Korean Peninsula with [a] sincere position and serious attitude,’’ he wrote.
A meeting would be a huge step between the two countries, avowed enemies for 70 years, and particularly between two leaders.
However, Trump has also repeatedly said he would be willing to talk to Kim. While running for president in 2016, Trump said he wouldn’t host Kim for a state visit but would be happy to sit down for hamburgers at a boardroom table with the North Korean leader.
The North Koreans have been confused by Trump’s unorthodox leadership style, making contact with analysts in Washington with Republican ties. Senior North Korean officials have even read ‘‘Fire and Fury,’’ the explosive book by Michael Wolff about Trump’s White House.
There was no immediate word on where a meeting would be held, although it would be unprecedented if it took place outside the Korean Peninsula.
Since he took over the leadership of North Korea from his father at the end of 2011, Kim has not met any other head of state. Discussions are now underway to hold a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas at the end of next month.
Kim sent his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to South Korea at the opening of the Winter Olympics last month to deliver an invitation to Moon for a summit. Preparations are underway for that meeting, set for the end of April, even as the United States and South Korea prepare to begin drills that anger North Korea every year.
There has been no word on the three American men who have been detained in North Korea, one for 2 1/2 years. North Korea has been treating them as prisoners of war and has denied Swedish diplomats, representing the United States in North Korea, consular access to them since June last year.
The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan, Ashley Parker, Seung Min Kim and David Nakamura in Washington contributed to this report.