WASHINGTON — President Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by May for high-level talks toward a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, a South Korean official said outside the White House on Thursday.
It would be the first face-to-face meeting in history between a U.S. president and a North Korean leader.
The opening came through shuttle diplomacy by a South Korean delegation that arrived in Washington on Thursday. Trump heralded the development as a “major announcement” after speaking with the South Korean president.
"I told President Trump that in our meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he's committed to denuclearization. He pledged that North Korea will refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests," South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong told reporters after meeting with Trump at the White House.
Significantly, there was no insistence that the United States and South Korea suspend joint military exercises.
Chung met with Kim earlier this week, and came to Washington on Thursday to relay the message from the North Korean leader.
"I explained to President Trump that his leadership, and his maximum pressure policy, along with international solidarity, brought us to this juncture," he said.
The Trump administration has rallied the United Nations to impose ever-tightening sanctions against North Korea following a battery of missile tests.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Trump would accept the invitation to meet Kim "at a place and time to be determined." But she added, "In the meantime, all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain.”
Trump claimed a diplomatic victory Thursday, telling ABC News, "Hopefully, you will give me credit."
Hours earlier, Trump hinted at the news in an unexpected visit to the White House briefing room, calling it a "major announcement" about a "big subject."
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Experts greeted the news with a mix of optimism and skepticism.
"You know what, it’s a Hail Mary, but why not? Crazier things have happened in world history," said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, a think tank founded by former president Richard Nixon. "Give peace a chance."
But Kazianis cautioned that Trump has to be careful not to give Kim any concessions. "You can't give Kim Jong Un the photo op he wants to legitimize him," he said. "You cannot legitimize a country that has more than 100,000 people in what are essentially Nazi-style gulag camps."
And Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies cautioned that North Korea has yet to prove it's serious about abandoning its nuclear ambitions.
"The challenge is that the North Korea regime is a global champion, along with the Iranian regime, in playing us as fools," he said.
Previous nuclear freezes by the North Koreans — in 1994 and 2005 — ended with the regime getting sanctions relief and then resuming its nuclear program.
"North Korean regimes have repeatedly used talks and empty promises to extract concessions and buy time," said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "We’ve got to break this cycle."
The surprise development follows several weeks of thawing relations between North and South Korea, prompted by the North's participation in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang under a unified banner.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in a statement that the upcoming summit would be recorded as " a historical milestone for peace on the Korean peninsula."
"If President Trump and Chairman Kim meet following an inter-Korean summit, complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula will be in full swing," he said, adding that he was "deeply grateful for the courage and wisdom of the two leaders who have made a difficult decision."
Moon praised Trump's leadership, saying that it will "receive praise from the people of North and South Korea and the world for peace."
Local reaction in Seoul to the announcement was a mix of hope and skepticism. Seoul's mayor, Park Won-soon, also a member President Moon’s Democratic Party, greeted the news with a strong note of optimism.
“Spring is coming. Peace is coming to the Korean peninsula” said Mayor Park. “Of course, there will still be some obstacles — but it is a good sign for peace.”
Some Seoul residents remained wary, however, noting that there have been overtures towards peace with North Korea many times in the past.
“Normal people don’t care much about [the meeting] yet,” said Jung Haw-young, a 31-year-old office worker. “We have heard North Korea talk like this before.”
Duyeon Kim, visiting senior research fellow, at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum, said that “nobody should go into [the meeting] with starry eyes,” because North Korea has cheated and broken promises to halt its nuclear weapons program many times in the past.
However, she said that the meeting remains a rare opportunity that the United States should try hard to advantage of, particularly because the summit is dealing directly with Kim Jong Un and not lower-level ministers.
“Because of the way the North operates, from the top down, it’s better to go straight to Kim than to go from bottom up,” Kim said. “[The U.S.] should take the opportunity and negotiate as hard as they can. At this stage of North Korea’s nuclear development, this actually could be the last time we have a chance for achieving any type of progress through a negotiated settlement.”
Moon sent Chung to North Korea this week as part of the highest-level talks in a decade.
Those talks were seen as a first step toward normalization of relations between the two countries, which have been divided since the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean war.
But those talks soon developed into something more. The invitation was delivered orally through the South Korean delegation, and Chung relayed it to Trump in an Oval Office meeting Thursday, said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic discussions.
"Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Trump tweeted. "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!"
Members of South Korea's ruling Democratic Party took credit for Moon's policy of engagement with North Korea for bringing the Trump-Kim Jong Un meeting together.
"We greatly welcome the fact that after meeting U.S. President Trump, President Moon's special envoy created an opportunity for the establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue between the leaders of North Korean and the United States," said Kim Hyun, spokeswoman for the party.
She said that the meeting was possible “because citizens have trusted the Moon government and supported it."
For Trump to become the first U.S. leader to meet with his North Korean counterpart is particularly surprising given the increasingly impudent war of words between the two men. Trump has called Kim "little rocket man;" Kim has called Trump a "dotard" and a lunatic."
And Trump has all but ruled out talks with North Korea in the past, telling his secretary of State that efforts to bring North Korea to the table were a "waste of time."
But at a Tuesday news conference, Trump appeared to warm to the idea of talks. "I think that they are sincere," he said of North Korea's desire for talks. "I hope they're sincere. We're going to soon find out."
And in a dinner with journalists last Saturday, Trump joked about the possibility.
"I won't rule out direct talks with Kim Jong Un. I just won't," he said. "As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that's his problem, not mine."
Contributing: Thomas Maresca in Seoul