After a year of threats and diatribes, U.S. President Donald Trump and third-generation North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un have agreed to meet face-to-face for talks in May this year about the North Korea’s nuclear program. Trump and Kim prompted jitters around the world last year as they exchanged bellicose insults over the North’s attempts to develop a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States. Pyongyang has pursued its nuclear program in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
“A meeting is being planned,” Trump said on Twitter after accepting an invitation to meet from Kim. There is no date or venue yet for the meeting although it could take place in May. A senior State Department official said the talks would likely only be a preliminary discussion about holding future negotiations. “The expectation is that the talks would lead to a discussion around a conclusion that we’re ready to engage in negotiations,” the official said.
The head of South Korea’s National Security Office, Chung Eui-yong, speaking in Washington, said Trump had agreed to meet the North Korean leader by May in response to Kim’s invitation. Kim had “committed to denuclearization” and to suspending nuclear and missile tests, Chung said.
U.S.-based experts say North Korea appeared to show last November that it has succeeded in developing a missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon anywhere in the United States. Trump has derided Kim as a “maniac,” referred to him as “little rocket man” and threatened in a speech last year to “totally destroy” North Korea, a country of 26 million people, if it attacked the United States or one of its allies. Kim responded by calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”
The Trump administration has led a worldwide push to tighten international sanctions on North Korea to choke off resources needed for its weapons programs. U.S. officials say the moves, which include restrictions on fuel supplies to North Korea, on its key coal exports, and to cut revenues it has received from tens of thousands of workers overseas, have begun to show signs of working.
It remains to be seen whether a summit, if it takes place, could lead to any meaningful breakthrough after an unusually provocative year. North Korea tested its most powerful nuclear weapon to date and test-launched three intercontinental ballistic missiles theoretically capable of striking the U.S. mainland.
The entire world is awaiting with caution, while several world leaders welcomed prospects for a possible thaw in the long standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program on Friday, March 9th after U.S. President Donald Trump said he was prepared to hold an unprecedented meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The invitation letter sent by Kim Jong Un and the immediate acceptance by Trump has taken the world by surprise. Successive American administrations have spent years on cautious, painstaking diplomacy with the Kim family dynasty, backed by a judicious mix of sanctions and bribes. After each deal was reached the North Koreans pocketed the aid and concessions on offer, broke their word and returned to their decades-long quest to develop nuclear weapons. At best, all that expertise and patience might have slowed North Korea’s path to a bomb by a few years.
But tension eased around last month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, laying the groundwork for what would be the first meeting between leaders from North Korea and the United States, and the biggest foreign policy gamble for Trump since he took office in January last year.
News of the planned meeting was welcomed by China, which is North Korea’s largest trading partner and its sole major ally, though overall trade has fallen in recent months as U.N. economic sanctions take effect. President Xi Jinping told Trump in a phone call on Friday that he appreciates his desire to resolve the North Korea issue politically, Chinese state media said. Xi “hopes the United States and North Korea start contacts and dialogue as soon as possible and strive to reach positive results,” the report added.
Neutral Switzerland, which often hosts summits, said it was ready to facilitate the meeting. Sweden could also play a role. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho will visit Sweden in the near future, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported on Friday, quoting sources. The Swedish foreign ministry declined comment. Sweden’s embassy in Pyongyang represents U.S. interests, in the absence of U.S. diplomatic relations.
North Korea sees a Trump meeting as a chance to win relief from the sanctions as well as an opportunity to earn the international legitimacy that it seeks, the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank said.
“For Kim, the prospect of an early summit with Trump provides the best prospect of removing international sanctions pressure while giving Kim room for maneuver to possibly keep his nuclear deterrent in place,” it said.
Vice President Mike Pence said the United States had made “zero concessions” and had “consistently increased the pressure” on North Korea. Some U.S. officials and experts worry North Korea could buy time to build up and refine its nuclear arsenal if it drags out talks with Washington.
The government of Japan remained cautious about the talks. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump, in a phone call, promised to continue to enforce sanctions until Pyongyang took “tangible steps … toward denuclearization,” the White House said in a statement.
Trump had agreed to meet Kim without any preconditions, a South Korean official said. “Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze,” Trump said on Twitter on Thursday night. “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.”
James Clapper, a career military intelligence officer who rose to become Director of National Intelligence during Barack Obama’s presidency, cautiously welcomed talk of a Trump-Kim summit. If still in office, he would recommend that the president go, he said. “But I would advise that he do something that doesn’t come easily to Donald Trump, which is to listen. We need to hear from Kim Jong Un himself what it would take for him to feel secure,” General Clapper told this blogger In 2014 the general was sent to Pyongyang on a secret mission to bring back two Americans being held in North Korea. While there, he recalled, the North Koreans had stressed their desire for a full-scale peace treaty with America, to replace the ceasefire that ended the Korean war. Yes, the former spy chief conceded, the North Koreans have ambitions to push American forces out of their region. But that is no reason not to talk. “I think they may be feeling confident now that whatever they have is enough that they would not be meeting the president as a supplicant.”
North and South Korea, where the United Sates stations 28,500 troops, are technically still at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a ceasefire, not a truce.
Analysts say Trump’s decision to accept Kim’s invitation for a summit and to do it by May could be linked in part to a desire to claim a significant achievement in his most difficult foreign policy challenge before the U.S. midterm elections in November.
Kim, on the other hand, seems desperate to save a sanctions-battered North Korean economy. Both leaders have interests in striking a big deal, said Cheong Seong-Chang, a senior analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute. Should it happen, the May summit between Trump and Kim will come shortly after a planned April meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. It’s likely that North Korea will also push for summits with China, Russia and Japan later in the year to further break out of its isolation, Cheong said.