It would have been an unthinkable suggestion just a few months ago, when the insults were at their peak – Trump was a “senile dotard” and Kim was “Little Rocket Man” – and the North was snapping off regular weapons tests in a dogged march toward its goal of a viable nuclear arsenal that can threaten the US mainland.
Liberal South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who some believe has maneuvered the two leaders to this position, reflected the hope and relief many here feel about the planned summit when he declared yesterday that it will be a “historical milestone” that will put the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula “really on track.”
But there’s also considerable scepticism.
North Korea, after all, has made a habit of reaching out, after raising fears during previous crises, with offers of dialogue meant to win aid and concessions. Some speculate that the North is trying to peel Washington away from its ally Seoul, weaken crippling sanctions and buy time for nuclear development.
Now the North has landed a face-to-face meeting with the leader of the world’s most powerful country, a nation that North Korea has long sought to draw into talks that it hopes would establish a peace treaty to end the technically still-active Korean War and drive out all US troops from the Korean peninsula, removing what the North says is a hostile encirclement of its territory by Washington and Seoul.
Trump’s hastily reached decision to accept the meeting sent White House staff scrambling. On Thursday, South Korean national security director Chung Eui-yong had briefed Trump and other top US officials about a rare meeting with Kim in the North Korean capital.
Trump then made a surprise visit to the White House press briefing room to alert reporters of an upcoming “major statement” on North Korea by South Korea.
At a quickly called appearance on a White House driveway, Chung told reporters that Kim had “expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible” and that “President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong Un by May to achieve permanent denuclearisation.”
“Great progress being made,” Trump tweeted after the announcement.
North Korea still produces propaganda declaring its continuing dedication to the “treasured sword” of its nuclear programme. Washington still remains publicly dedicated to annual war games with the South that the North claims are invasion rehearsal and to keeping 28,500 troops in the South and 50,000 in Japan, largely as a way to deter North Korean aggression.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Djibouti yesterday that the decision to meet Kim was made by Trump himself and resulted from a sharp change in the North Korean leader’s stance.
“What changed was his posture in a fairly dramatic way. It was a surprise to us that he was so forward-leaning,” Tillerson said. He said it would take “some weeks” before the timing of the talks is worked out.
North Korea appeared to confirm the summit plans, saying the invitation was the result of Kim’s “broad minded and resolute decision” to contribute to the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula.