(ABC TODAY) President Donald Trump has agreed to meet directly with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, in what could be the biggest breakthrough in the tense nuclear saber-rattling that has defined the president’s stance since taking office.
The invitation from the North Korean dictator was announced at the White House by South Korea’s national security adviser, who reported that North Korea also agreed that in the interim it would halt its missile tests and was prepared to negotiate ending its nuclear weapons program altogether.
Kim “stressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible,” Chung Eui-yong, the South Korean national security adviser, said on Thursday evening outside the West Wing of the White House. “President Trump appreciated the greeting and said he would meet Kim Jong Un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.”
“I explained to President Trump that his leadership and his maximum pressure policy, together with international solidarity, brought us to this juncture. I expressed President Moon Jae-in’s personal gratitude for President Trump’s leadership,” he added, referring to the South Korea leader.
His comments, delivered in the driveway in the chilly night, came almost two hours after Trump himself ducked into the White House briefing room to alert reporters that news was coming. But he declined to share it himself, instead leaving the South Korean official to talk about his plans.
The president reverted to his preferred form of communication shortly after, tweeting: “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!”
A senior administration official later explained that South Korean officials briefed the president inside the Oval Office on the verbal offer. Also present were White House chief of staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.
Trump also spoke on Thursday night with President Abe of Japan about the development, the official said.
When asked why the president was willing to go directly to a meeting with Kim instead of first engaging in lower-level talks, the administration official who briefed reporters said the United States had done such talks for years without much success. “I think that history speaks for itself,” the official said.
The announcement was a stunning development.
Trump has engaged in a bitter war of words with the North Korean leader, dubbing him “little Rocket Man” and verbally antagonizing him. At the same time, Trump has called for increased diplomatic pressure on the hermit nation and focused on enacting crippling sanctions.
The two leaders’ threatening rhetoric in recent months has been deeply concerning to international diplomats and military officials who have warned that the war of words could turn into a real one, possibly including nuclear weapons.
North Korea’s weapons program it has conducted six underground nuclear tests between 2006 and September of last year and increasingly advanced missile tests have steadily placed its neighbors and, possibly, U.S. territory in the range of a nuclear attack.
Indeed, a false alarm of an incoming missile strike in Hawaii earlier this year sent citizens scrambling for shelter in an episode reminiscent of the “duck and cover” drills of the Cold War.
While North Korea has a long reputation for making nuclear threats, American presidents have traditionally used more diplomatic language in public to express Washington’s position that Pyongyang cannot be trusted with an atomic arsenal and long-range missiles.
But throughout his presidency, Trump has made a point of taunting and bashing the North Korea leader.
At one point, speaking from his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, Trump threatened that North Korea would face “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it didn’t stop provoking the U.S. with missile tests.
Other Trump broadsides have included tweeting that the president’s nuclear button is “bigger & more powerful than his, and my by Button works!” He has also mocked the strength of Kim’s military, derisively referred to him as “little.”
The pending meeting between Trump and Kim suggests that both leaders believe a diplomatic solution to the standoff is the only option.
“This is a major improvement over diplomacy that consisted of shouting insults at each other,” William Perry, who served as secretary of defense for Bill Clinton and negotiated with the North Koreans in the 1990s, told POLITICO.
Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote on Twitter: “Kim Jong Un’s desire to talk shows sanctions the administration has implemented are starting to work.”
And Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, which has been critical of much of the Trump administration’s approach so far to North Korea and has long advocated for negotiations, said: “This is very welcome news. Both sides are sending strong signals that they wish to find a negotiated solution.”
In addition to Trump’s agreement to meet with Kim, Kimball said, it is particularly significant that North Korea has agreed to halt its nuclear and missile tests.
“If they were to conduct three, four, five more flight tests, they will likely have mastered all the technical requirements to deliver nuclear warheads to your backyard and mine,” he said. “This comes in the nick of time in terms of the progress of their program.”
But he and others also cautioned that a lot of questions remained unanswered about what the agenda would be for a Trump-Kim meeting and the exact outcome of the negotiations.
“Of course, the meeting has to be prepared properly,” said Joel S. Wit, a former State Department official and founder of 38 North, a website that analyzes North Korea. “And the administration has to give it a lot of thought and consult with people who actually have experience talking to the North Koreans, but as a general principle it’s a good idea. It could be a historic turning point.”
Perry also cautioned about conducting talks without a clear set of goals.
“There is good reason to talk,” he said, “but only if we are talking about something that is worth doing and that could be reasonably verified. Otherwise we are setting ourselves up for a major diplomatic failure.”
“I would hope that the talks are based on realistic expectations of what can be negotiated and what can be verified,” he added.
Wit also downplayed warnings that the North Koreans could use a Trump meeting as a propaganda tool to further insist on being recognized as a nuclear power.
“Let’s focus on what’s important here,” he said. “What’s important is that for the past year we’ve been in the middle of a crisis that a lot of people thought was going to lead to a second Korean War. It’s an opportunity to turn a corner.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the nation’s top diplomat, was traveling in Africa and just hours before the announcement told reporters in Ethiopia when asked about North Korea: “In terms of direct talks with the United States and you asked negotiations, and we’re a long ways from negotiations.”
Tillerson added that it was important to be “very clear-eyed and realistic about it,” and that the first step was to “have some kind of talks about talks.”
Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said that “the secretary and the president spoke” about the decision, adding that “we’re encouraged by this development but there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Others also cautioned against raising expectations about a Trump-Kim meeting.
“I don’t think it’s a game changer,” said James Carafano, vice president of foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, who also worked on the Trump transition. “The North Koreans have agreed to halt stuff before and came back and did worse.”
He cautioned against giving Kim anything until North Korea demonstrated that it was truly “on a confirmable path to not being a nuclear threat to the United States and its allies.”
“Giving Kim anything for beating on the drum is just incentivizing bad behavior,” Carafano added. “But sometimes these things lead to massive changes.”