U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise acceptance of an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang “by May” to discuss ending the North’s threatening nuclear program was met with a mixture of cautious optimism and skepticism.
Chung Eui-yong, the head of South Korea’s National Security Office, announced the agreement late Thursday. He was in Washington to brief Trump and White House officials, including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, on diplomatic progress made during his visit to Pyongyang earlier this week. He also conveyed the verbal invitation from the North Korean leader to the U.S. president.
“President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong Un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization,” Chung said.
Chung led a South Korean diplomatic delegation that met with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang on Monday. Afterward, he communicated Kim’s willingness to engage with the U.S. in denuclearization negotiations, and his promise to suspend nuclear and missile tests while talks are underway.
Pyongyang’s position, as stated by Chung, is that “it would have no reason to possess nuclear weapons should the safety of its regime be guaranteed and military threats against North Korea be removed.”
A senior North Korean diplomat at the United Nations in New York, Pak Song Il, appeared to confirm the summit plans, telling The Washington Post in an email that the invitation was the result of Kim’s “broad minded and resolute decision’’ to contribute to the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula, the newspaper reported.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking Friday to reporters during a visit to the African nation of Djibouti, said Trump made the decision to meet with Kim.
“President Trump has said for some time that he was open to talks and he would willingly meet with Kim when conditions were right,” Tillerson said. “And I think in the president’s judgment that time has arrived now.”
The prospect of denuclearization talks could significantly de-escalate heightened tensions over North Korea’s accelerated nuclear and ballistic missile tests over the past two years, and efforts to develop operational capability to target U.S. mainland cities with a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile.
“After numerous discussions with President Trump, I firmly believe his strong stand against North Korea and its nuclear aggression gives us the best hope in decades to resolve this threat peacefully,” said U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham. “I am not naive. I understand that if the past is an indication of the future, North Korea will be all talk and no action.”
Graham warned North Korea, however, that the “worst possible thing” it could do when meeting with Trump is to “try to play him.” The senator said, “If you do that, it will be the end of you and your regime.”
Robert Gallucci, chief U.S. negotiator during the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis, said North Korea’s invitation is a “surprising and welcome development. He added, “If representatives of both governments can meet, and a summit ultimately is held, it would represent substantial progress in reducing tension and the risk of war.
“What is new isn’t the proposal, it’s the response,” said Daniel Russell, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and The Pacific.” He said North Korea “has for many years proposed that the president of the United States personally engage with North Korea’s leaders as an equal — one nuclear power to another.”
Tough sanctions coupled with diplomacy
Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach led international efforts to impose tough sanctions in 2017 that banned billions of dollars’ worth of North Korean coal, iron ore, clothing products and seafood exports. The Trump administration has also emphasized a willingness to use military force, if needed, to eliminate the nuclear threat.
As the U.S. intensified pressure, South Korean President Moon Jae-in tried to create diplomatic space by facilitating North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics. Also, North Korea has not conducted any provocative tests since November 2017.
Seoul also announced this week that Moon and Kim will hold an inter-Korean summit in April, at the truce village of Panmunjom, on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone border region. This will be the third summit between the leaders of North and South Korea and the first since 2007.
“I think the U.S. will wait to see how the North-South talks in April turn out before making a final decision on whether to meet and I see three possible scenarios,” said Takashi Kawakami, president of the Institute of World Studies, Takushoku University in Tokyo. “The first is that North Korea will agree to denuclearization, second that North Korea will agree to a nuclear freeze with the U.S. and third that it withdraws its approach and returns to missile launches. Of those I see the second as the most likely, with Japan calling for continued pressure sidelined.”
On Thursday, Chung said the North Korean leader will not object to the resumption of U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises expected to start in April.
“He understands that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue,” Chung said.
Earlier, North Korean state media warned that Pyongyang would respond to the resumption of the joint drills, possibly by resuming provocative nuclear and missile tests, even if it means triggering further sanctions.
The annual exercises were postponed to maintain a peaceful atmosphere during the Winter Olympics and Paralympics being held in South Korea, but are expected to begin at the end of March or early April. More than 20,000 American troops, 300,000 South Korean forces, and an array of bomber aircrafts, fighter jets and warships have participated in past exercises.
North Korea has denounced these military exercises that have included “decapitation drills” to attack the leadership and key installations in North Korea in the event of war, as “rehearsals for invasion.”
The U.S. maintains the joint exercises are defense-oriented and legal under international law, as opposed to North Korea’s nuclear program, which Washington says threatens its neighbors and the world, and has been repeatedly sanctioned by the Untied Nations.
The prospect of constructive engagement between Trump and Kim follows a tense period in which the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea exchanged not only threats of military retribution, but also derisive personal insults. Trump called the North Korean leader “little rocket man” and Kim called the U.S. president a “dotard,” an archaic English word meaning old and senile.
North Korea’s openness to talks has been received with a mix of cautious optimism and skepticism. Pyongyang has broken past agreements to end its nuclear program, in exchange for economic assistance and security guarantees.
North Korea may try to seek immediate sanctions relief for freezing its current nuclear arsenal — estimated to be between 13 and 30 nuclear weapons, and hundreds of medium- and long-range missiles — while putting off any significant measures to dismantle its nuclear capacities.
“Kim Jong Un’s desire to talk shows sanctions the administration has implemented are starting to work,” said Ed Royce, Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The United States and South Korea must stand shoulder-to-shoulder in applying the sustained pressure needed to peacefully end this threat. And Beijing must do its part.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been suspicious of North Korea’s motives, spoke with Trump on Thursday and praised his hard-line leadership for forcing Pyongyang to change. Abe said he plans to visit Trump in Washington next month to discuss the summit with North Korea.
It is also unclear that the U.S. and North Korea can even agree what the goal of the denuclearization talks should be.
Washington wants to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear program. But North Korea’s long-standing requirement for denuclearization includes the removal of all U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula, and the withdrawal of the American commitment to use its nuclear arsenal to defend its allies in the region.
Regarding what the U.S. might be willing to concede to get a nuclear deal, North Korea analyst Victor Cha with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington asked on Twitter, “What are we putting on table: Sanctions? Normalization? Peace treaty?”
President Trump has been critical of efforts by the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama to resolve the North Korean nuclear threat through negotiations. These past deals slowed the North’s nuclear progress, but Pyongyang covertly continued its development efforts and eventually reneged on pledges to dismantle its nuclear facilities.
Liu Hailon, a 39-year-old Beijing resident, said a meeting between the United States and North Korean leaders would be a “rare opportunity.”
Linda Lin, another Beijing resident, said she did not think Kim Jong Un would give up his nuclear weapons since he has acted “against the peaceful situation that the world has been pursuing…”
Yasuko Sugio, a 79-year-old Tokyo resident, said he doubted the summit would actually take place, but if it does he hopes Trump and Kim would be able to have a “proper dialogue.”
Takahiro Oda, also of Tokyo, said he “can’t believe” either Trump or Kim Jong Un. “I don’t know what is in Trump’s head and am doubtful if he has serious thoughts” about meeting the North Korean leader, he said.
VOA Correspondent Brian Padden and reporter Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul and Nike Ching in Djibouti contributed to this report.