March 8 (UPI) — President Donald Trump agreed to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for denuclearization talks by May, a South Korean envoy who facilitated communication between the two said Thursday.
Chung Eui-yong, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s national security chief, said Kim offered to halt nuclear and ballistic missile testing and production in order to facilitate the proposed meeting.
Kim “expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible,” Chung told reporters outside the White House. “Trump said he would meet Kim by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.”
The envoy said Kim is “committed to denuclearization” and that he understands routine joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States must continue.
“We are optimistic about continuing a diplomatic process,” Chung said. “The Republic of Korea, the United States and our partners stand together in insisting we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump “greatly appreciates the nice words” of the South Korean delegation.
“He will accept the invitation to meet with Kim Jong Un at a place and time to be determined. We look forward to the denuclearization of North Korea. In the meantime, all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain,” she added.
Trump made his own comments on Twitter.
“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!” he tweeted.
A senior administration official told reporters after the announcement that continued sanctions pressure is what differentiated Trump’s denuclearization efforts from those of previous administrations.
Trump “is not prepared to reward North Korea in exchange for talks,” the official said, “and really he expects North Korea to start putting action to these words that were conveyed via the South Koreans.”
Charles Armstrong, the Korea Foundation professor of Korean studies at Columbia University, told UPI earlier Thursday, before the announcement that talks would be the next step.
“North Korea wants to find a way out of sanctions, which have become increasingly onerous and were certainly beginning to take a toll,” he said. “Sanctions relief, security guarantees and denuclearization are all in the mix right now, and the only way to start is to enter into talks.”
The announcement comes after a South Korean presidential delegation that met with Kim in Pyongyang traveled to Washington, D.C., to deliver a top-secret communication from Kim to Trump.
Before the Washington meeting, Chung said the main aim of the delegation’s U.S. visit was to build trust with the United States regarding potential dialogue.
The alarming level of missile development and claims North Korean rockets could hit parts of the continental United States has drawn strong responses from the Trump administration.
Questioned about the risk of fruitless high-level talks, a senior administration official said Trump was elected into office because of promises to do things differently than previous administrations.
“When President Trump came into office … he determined on Day 1 that the urgent matter of denuclearizing North Korea was something that would require a new approach,” the official said, adding that the president wanted to avoid “mistakes that have been made over the past 27 years of dialogue and failed approaches.
“President Trump made his reputation on making deals,” the official said.
But Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia program at the Woodrow WilsonInternational Center for Scholars, seemed less certain about North Korea’s sincerity.
“Kim will accomplish the dream of his father and grandfather by making North Korea a nuclear state, and gain tremendous prestige and legitimacy by meeting with an American president as an equal. All without giving up a single warhead or missile,” he said on Twitter.
While low-level U.S. officials have been in touch with their counterparts in North Korea over multiple previous administrations, no sitting U.S. president has ever met with a North Korean leader. Former President Jimmy Cartermet with Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, in 1994 and former President Bill Clinton met with Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, in 2009.
Any face-to-face meeting between Trump and Kim would make good on a campaign promise by the U.S. president to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
It’s a departure from the Obama administration’s policy, which focused on increasing sanctions on North Korea in an attempt to denuclearize.
Elizabeth Shim contributed to this report.