U.S. President Donald Trump has agreed to meet with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in what would mark the first summit between the two countries’ heads of state since the end of the Korean War nearly 65 years ago.
The decision to hold talks with Kim was announced by the White House on Thursday, after South Korean officials briefed Trump on their recent visit to Pyongyang, where the North Korean leader expressed a willingness to discuss nuclear disarmament with the U.S. and said he would suspend all nuclear and missile tests during the dialogue.
Trump said he would meet Kim “by May to achieve permanent denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, South Korea’s national security advisor Chung Eui-yong said, following his meeting with the U.S. president in Washington. The talks will be held in an as of yet undetermined location.
Chung said that the U.S. and South Korea “stand together in insisting … that the pressure will continue until North Korea matches its words with concrete actions” for ending its illicit weapons program, referring to crippling sanctions Washington has championed against Pyongyang through the United Nations Security Council in response to repeated missile and nuclear tests.
The announcement came days after the office of South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in said the North and South had agreed to hold a summit meeting between Kim and Moon at South Korea’s Freedom House in the Panmunjom “truce” village along their shared border in late April.
North Korea has yet to officially acknowledge plans for either of the two meetings, or its willingness to dismantle its nuclear program “if the military threat to the North was eliminated and its security guaranteed,” as claimed by Moon’s office.
Pyongyang has previously stated it would not be willing to make its weapons development program part of any negotiations with the U.S., and had conducted more than a dozen missile tests in the past year, provoking a war of words between Trump and Kim.
The Washington Post cited an email from Pak Song Il, a senior North Korean diplomat at the United Nations in New York, as saying Kim’s invitation to Trump came from his “broad minded and resolute decision” to contribute to the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula, in what appeared to be an confirmation of the summit plans.
American officials were quick to stress that the U.S. had made no concessions in setting up the proposed talks and that Kim’s invitation to Trump was a clear indication that Washington’s policy of isolationism against the North had succeeded.
“North Korea’s desire to meet to discuss denuclearization—while suspending all ballistic missile and nuclear testing—is evidence that President Trump’s strategy to isolate the Kim regime is working,” Vice President Mike Pence said in a statement on Friday.
“The North Koreans are coming to the table despite the United States making zero concessions and, in close coordination with our allies, we have consistently increased the pressure on the Kim regime,” Pence added, noting that Washington’s “maximum pressure campaign will continue until North Korea takes concrete, permanent, and verifiable steps to end their nuclear program.”
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a news conference in Kenya’s capital Nairobi on Friday that the last 24 hours had shown that “the policy we've put in place [on North Korea] and executed by the State Department has succeeded,” according to a report by Reuters news agency.
Likelihood of progress
But observers said Friday that even if Kim acknowledges plans to meet with Trump, there is no guarantee that the summit will take place, and that talks alone do not guarantee North Korea will end its ambitions of becoming a recognized nuclear-weapon state.
The North has repeatedly made overtures of dialogue after periods of threatening rhetoric in a bid to win aid concessions, but prior talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been handled by lower-level experts and have stalled over how denuclearization would proceed.
Kang In-duk, South Korea’s former minister of unification, told RFA’s Korean Service that the North must offer more than a moratorium of its program if it wants to enter into meaningful dialogue with the U.S.
“North Korea should provide a detailed road map for denuclearization, rather than simply freezing its nuclear program,” he said.
Kim Tae-woo, the former president of the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said the North is too invested in its weapons program to reverse course now.
“North Korea proclaims that they are a ‘nuclear state’ in their constitution and also propagandizes that their nuclear program is the ‘treasured sword’ of the country,” he said.
“It is not an easy political choice to make such a sudden change toward ‘giving up nuclear.’”
However, Cho Han-bum, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said he believes that the North “is sincere this time,” suggesting Kim’s decision to “go all in” on nuclear development had caused his control of the country to become tenuous.
“North Korea made a choice to have a nuclear program to secure its system [of governance] but the system is in a vicious circle, with the weapons program repeatedly bringing it to a critical situation,” he said.
“[North Korea] is rushing to enter into the negotiation phase because of this.”
Defectors weigh in
North Korean defectors welcomed the announcement of talks between Kim and Trump, but said their expectations for the summit were low.
Gwang Il Jung, a representative of No Chain, an Seoul-based association working on behalf of North Korean political prisoners and their families, said he “fully agrees” with the idea of talks, but also suggested that the North would need to do more to demonstrate it is willing to change its previous approach.
“Some see President Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un as a gesture of surrender, but [Trump thinks], ‘We’ve been tricked for years … Show us first that you are changing,’” he said.
“Holding a meeting doesn’t matter in the long run.”
Ma Young Ae, a campaigner with the International North Korean Association for Human Rights and Democracy (INKAHRD) in New York said it is unlikely Kim will change his ways after telling the international community that the North would never give up its nuclear weapons.
“And now he is trying to hold talks with U.S. President Trump—I can’t believe he would give up his nuclear ambitions and hold serious talks.”
Kim Heung Kwang, the executive director of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity in South Korea, noted that no official confirmation had been made by the North.
“We haven’t found any mention of the word ‘denuclearization’ and there has been no information published about the visit of the five-member [South Korean delegation to Pyongyang] that included Chung Eui-yong,” he said.
“This is [North Korea’s] strategy for the talks. Later on [they will say], ‘When did we mention anything about denuclearization?’”
Reported by RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hee Jung Yang. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.