By Jeremy Diamond, CNN
President Donald Trump has agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by May, the White House and the South Korean national security adviser said Thursday evening.
“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. We look forward to the denuclearization of North Korea. In the meantime, all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced in a statement.
The stunning announcement came after Kim extended the invitation to Trump through South Korean officials who met with the President on Thursday. Trump would be the first sitting US president to meet with his North Korean counterpart, a stunning diplomatic breakthrough — albeit one with uncertain consequences.
Trump signaled in a tweet that he was optimistic about the possibilities: “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!”
Trump agreed to meet with Kim within hours of learning of the North Korean leader’s offer. The South Korean national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, arrived at the White House shortly before 2:30 p.m. to meet with his US counterpart, H.R. McMaster, and brief the President in the Oval Office. Just minutes after 5 p.m., Trump poked his head in the White House briefing room to tell reporters South Korea would be making a “major announcement.”
Speaking from outside the West Wing, Chung said Kim “expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible.”
But a host of questions lingered over Trump’s remarkable decision, which signaled a break with the administration’s thinking just days — even hours — earlier.
Kim told the South Koreans “he is committed to denuclearization” and pledged that North Korea will “refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests,” Chung said Thursday. Kim also told the South Koreans he understands that the US and South Korea will move forward with their joint military exercises later this year.
Just days earlier, a senior administration official had told reporters on a briefing call the US would demand that North Korea first take concrete steps toward denuclearization before any direct talks could take place.
“All options are on the table and our posture toward the regime will not change until we see credible moves toward denuclearization,” the official told reporters on Tuesday. “What we are looking for is concrete steps toward denuclearization.”
As of Thursday evening, there was no indication that North Korea had pledged to take those steps.
Earlier on Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters traveling with him in Ethiopia that the US was “a long way from negotiations.”
“In terms of direct talks with the United States, and you asked negotiations, we’re a long way from negotiations. We just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it,” Tillerson said.
Trump’s approach to North Korea has wavered between bellicose rhetoric and expressions of openness to diplomacy — with the President saying one day that the US would rain “fire and fury” on North Korea and then saying he would consider speaking directly with the country’s leader under the right circumstances.
Amid the potentially breakthrough talks between North and South Korea, the Trump administration has also credited its campaign of “maximum pressure” on North Korea as having brought Pyongyang to the negotiating table.
Since Trump came into office, the US has leveled some of its most significant and far-reaching sanctions against North Korea and has also succeeded in pressuring China to further isolate the regime. That pressure, the White House said Thursday, would not abate as the US heads toward the historic talks.
The White House did not say on Thursday why it had changed its calculus toward North Korea by agreeing to talks without “concrete steps toward denuclearization.” But a senior administration official said Trump had accepted Kim’s invitation to meet because “it makes sense to accept an invitation to meet with the one person who can actually make decisions,” even though past US-North Korea talks have taken place at a lower level.
“President Trump was elected in part because he is willing to do — take approaches very, very different from past approaches and past presidents. That couldn’t be better exemplified in his North Korea policy,” the senior administration official said Thursday evening.
The official added that “President Trump has made his reputation on making deals” and Kim “is the one person who is able to make decisions under their authoritarian — or totalitarian — system.”
The upcoming talks could represent the US’s best chance yet to halt the advance of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, which have advanced over the last year at a stunning pace.
The stakes are extraordinarily high. Experts believe North Korea is months from obtaining the capability to strike the US with a nuclear weapon and the alternative to a successful diplomatic engagement could be devastating.
Trump has repeatedly said the US will not tolerate North Korea becoming capable of striking the US with a nuclear weapon, warning that he would first launch a devastating attack on North Korea. Such a military confrontation would likely lead to the deaths of millions, not only in North Korea, but also in South Korea.