By Anna Fifield
TOKYO - North Korea’s belligerent leader, Kim Jong Un, has asked President Donald Trump for talks and Trump has agreed to meet him “by May,” South Korea’s national security adviser said at the White House Thursday after delivering the invitation to the American president.
Kim has also committed to stopping nuclear and missile testing, even during joint military drills in South Korea last month, Chung Eui-yong told reporters in Washington.
After a year in which North Korea fired inter-continental ballistic missiles capable of reaching all of the United States and tested what is widely thought to have been a hydrogen bomb, such a moratorium would be welcomed by the U.S. and the world.
Kim Jong Un “expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible,” Chung said. “President Trump said he would meet Kim Jong Un by May.” Chung did not provide any information on where the meeting would be.
Chung led the South Korean delegation to North Korea earlier this week, where he had a cordial four-hour dinner with the reclusive Kim. During the meetings in Pyongyang, Kim and his senior cadres expressed a willingness to hold talks with the U.S. and was prepared to discuss denuclearization and normalizing relations.
During the meetings, Kim “made it clear” that it would not resume provocations while engaged in those talks, Chung said Tuesday upon returning to Seoul.
Chung and Suh Hoon, the head of South Korea’s intelligence agency who was also at the dinner in Pyongyang, arrived in Washington Thursday to brief Trump and his senior officials on the meetings.
In front of the White House Thursday night, Chung credited Trump for bringing the North Korean leader to the table, continuing Seoul’s deliberate efforts to flatter the American president.
“I explained to President Trump that his leadership and his maximum pressure strategy... brought us to this juncture,” Chung said.
It was an extraordinary scene - a foreign official, unaccompanied by U.S. leaders, briefing the press at the White House.
Kim sent his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to South Korea at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang last month to deliver an invitation to South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, to hold a summit. Preparations are now underway for that meeting, scheduled to take place at the end of April, even as the American and South Korean militaries prepare to begin drills that anger North Korea every year.
After Chung returned from Pyongyang earlier this week with news that Kim Jong Un was amenable to talks, Trump said that North Korea was responding to the “maximum pressure” his administration was applying. In addition to threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea if it did not give up its nuclear weapons program, the Trump administration has been leading the efforts to impose increasingly tough sanctions through the United Nations, as well as the U.S. applying its own bilateral sanctions.
“I think they are sincere, but I think they are sincere also because of the sanctions and what we’re doing in respect to North Korea,” Trump said Tuesday, describing the measures as “very strong and very biting.”
He also said that “the great help we’ve been given from China” has played a role, although there are repeated reports of both Chinese and Russian assistance in helping North Korea evade sanctions.
Some analysts say that Kim is suddenly interested in talks because the sanctions are beginning to hurt and because he is genuinely afraid of American military strikes.
But others say that he’s feeling more confident than ever. In November, Kim declared that he had “completed” his missile program and is now ready to deal with the United States - on an equal footing, as nuclear state to nuclear state.
A meeting would be a huge step between the two countries, avowed enemies for 70 years, and particularly between two leaders who have taken delight in insulting each other over the past year. Trump has mocked Kim as “little rocket man” while the North Korean leader has called the American president a “dotard” and a “lunatic.”
However, Trump has also repeatedly said he would be willing to talk to Kim. While running for president in 2016, Trump said he wouldn’t host Kim for a state visit but would be happy to sit down for hamburgers at a boardroom table with the North Korean leader.
The North Koreans have been confused by Trump’s unorthodox leadership style, making contact with analysts in Washington with Republican ties. Senior North Korean officials have even read “Fire and Fury,” the explosive book.
Since he took over the leadership of North Korea from his father at the end of 2011, Kim has not met any other head of state. Discussions are now underway to hold a summit with Moon in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas at the end of next month.
This would be the third inter-Korean summit but there has never been a face-to-face meeting, or even a phone call, between the sitting leaders of North Korea and the United States. Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton met the then-leaders - Carter met Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung and Clinton met his father, Kim Jong Il - during visits to Pyongyang after they had left office.
Both Carter and Clinton went to Pyongyang to collect Americans who had been imprisoned by the regime.
There has been no word on the three American men who have been detained in North Korea, one for two-and-a-half years. North Korea has been treating them as prisoners of war and has denied Swedish diplomats, representing the United States in North Korea, consular access to them since June last year.