Donald Trump has accepted an invitation from the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, to hold an unprecedented summit meeting to discuss the future of the embattled regime’s nuclear and missile programme.
In a stunning development following months of tension and mutual sabre-rattling, senior South Korean officials appeared outside the White House to announce the news , having hand-carried Kim’s invitation to Washington. They said that Trump had declared himself ready to meet Kim “by May”. If the meeting takes place it would be the first ever between leaders of the two countries.
Trump himself confirmed the meeting in a tweet , adding that US sanctions against North Korea would remain in place until a deal on denuclearisation was achieved.
The development was announced by South Korean national security director Chung Eui-yong, who was flanked by intelligence chief Suh Hoon and Cho Yoon-je, South Korea’s ambassador to US.
The invitation to talks, Chung said, was accompanied by an offer to suspend North Korean missile and nuclear tests while talks are underway, the condition that US officials have laid down for the start of any substantive talks.
The White House confirmed the news in a statement later, saying: “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 denuclearisation of North Korea. In the meantime, all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain.”
The delegation of senior South Korean officials had met the North Korean leader in Pyongyang on Monday, and flown to Washington to brief the White House on Thursday. Announcing the delivery of the invitation in a hastily arranged press statement outside the White House, Chung praised Trump’s “leadership” and his policy of “maximum pressure”.
South Korean president meets Kim Yo-jong – video
“I told President Trump that in our meeting, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, said he is committed to denuclearisation,” Chung said. “Kim Jong-un pledged that North Korea will refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests. He understands the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue.”
He added that the North Korean leader had “expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible”.
“President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong-un by May to achieve permanent denuclearisation.”
White House officials said the US national security adviser, HR McMaster, would brief the UN security council on the new developments on Monday.
Why does the North Korean regime pursue a nuclear programme?
Much of the regime’s domestic legitimacy rests on portraying the country as under constant threat from the US and its regional allies, South Korea and Japan.
To support the claim that it is in Washington’s crosshairs, North Korea cites the tens of thousands of US troops lined up along the southern side of the demilitarised zone – the heavily fortified border dividing the Korean peninsula. Faced with what it says are US provocations, North Korea says it has as much right as any other state to develop a nuclear deterrent.
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is also aware of the fate of other dictators who lack nuclear weapons.
There have been no significant negotiations between the US and North Korea since 2012, when the two sides agreed a short-lived deal exchanging a moratorium on long range missiles and nuclear weapons activity in return for food aid. The agreement fell apart after Pyongyang launched a satellite with a powerful rocket that could be used in a missile.
An earlier deal struck in 1994 lasted considerably longer but fell apart as a result of mutual distrust. It is far from clear that any new deal would be any more enduring. North Korean view of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula has historically entailed the dissolution of US guarantees to defend South Korea that it would defend its ally with nuclear weapons if necessary.
Chung Eui-Yong, South Korea’s national security adviser, made the announcement outside the White House on Thursday. Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters
Mintaro Oba, a former state department official involved in North Korean policy under the Obama administration, urged caution.
“This is a welcome step that will help us de-escalate dangerous tensions on the Korean Peninsula in the near term – and hopefully lead to progress toward denuclearisation,” Oba said. “That said, we must manage our expectations given our knowledge of North Korea’s interests and past behavior. There is a long and complicated road ahead.
“When President Trump meets with Kim Jong-un, he should not allow the meeting to be purely about optics. He should bring a bold proposal for progress toward denuclearisation, putting the onus on North Korea to respond in good faith. At best, this meeting will lead to real progress. At worst, it is an important opportunity to shed light on North Korea’s real motivations and probe its flexibility.”
Jon Wolfsthal, who was special assistant to Obama on arms control and non-proliferation said: “The US must pursue this idea. Skepticism is healthy but the chance for progress is too good to pass up.”
But Wolfsthal added that the May deadline for the talks was “almost incredible”.