Sunday 18 March 2018

Donald Trump to meet Kim Jong Un after ‘great progress’ is made

The US president has frequently referred to Mr Kim as Little Rocket Man while Mr Trump has been branded a ‘senile dotard’ by Pyongyang.

A man watches a TV screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and US President Donald Trump in Tokyo (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)
A man watches a TV screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and US President Donald Trump in Tokyo (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

By Foster Klug

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump plan to meet in May for nuclear disarmament talks, a development that would put two leaders who have repeatedly insulted, threatened and dismissed each other in the same room, possibly in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.

It would have been an unthinkable suggestion just a few months ago, when the insults were at their peak.

Mr Trump was a “senile dotard” and Mr Kim was “Little Rocket Man” and the North was carrying out 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 manoeuvred the two leaders to this position, reflected the hope and relief many here feel about the planned summit when he declared it will be a “historical milestone” that will put the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula “really on track”.

But there is 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.

It has also, from the US point of view, repeatedly cheated on past nuclear deals.

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.

Mr Trump’s hastily reached decision to accept the meeting sent White House staff scrambling.

South Korean national security director Chung Eui-yong briefs the media at the White House (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Earlier on Thursday, South Korean national security director Chung Eui-yong had briefed Mr Trump and other top US officials about a rare meeting with Kim in the North Korean capital.

Mr 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, Mr Chung told reporters that Mr 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,” Mr Trump tweeted after the announcement.

South Korea Koreas Tensions

That remains to be seen.

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, they are expected to resume next month, after being postponed during the Winter Olympics in the South – and to keeping 28,500 troops in the South and 50,000 in Japan, largely as a way to deter North Korean aggression.

North Korea is engaged in “a ploy to serve its own interests” and make Mr Kim look like “a bold leader of a normal, peace-loving nuclear power”, according to Duyeon Kim, a visiting research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum think tank in Seoul.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, front right, meets South Korean National Security Director Chung Eui-yong (KCNA/AP)

“But in spite of the deceptive cloak, the agreement posed an opportunity for the United States. It put the ball in Washington’s court, and provides a window for the Trump administration to engage and test the regime through direct negotiations,” he wrote on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists web page.

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said in Djibouti the decision to meet with Mr Kim was made by Mr 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,” Mr 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.

A senior North Korean diplomat at the United Nations in New York, Pak Song Il, told The Washington Post in an email that the invitation was the result of Mr Kim’s “broad minded and resolute decision” to contribute to the peace and security of the Korean Peninsula.

Talks between Washington and Pyongyang have previously been overseen by lower-level experts, and have often bogged down, even when so-called “breakthroughs” have come, in the details, such as allowing outsiders in to inspect North Korea’s nuclear compliance, for instance.

Now, the talks will start at the top.

And there will be no time to settle all the problems that have scuttled previous negotiations.

It is anyone’s guess what Mr Trump and Mr Kim might decide in the highest-level meeting in what has been essentially a bloody, seven-decade standoff between their countries.

The announcement followed weeks of softening ties between the Koreas, orchestrated by the South Korean leader, Mr Moon, and culminating in a visit by Kim Jong Un’s sister to the South to observe the Olympics in Pyeongchang and then Mr Chung’s trip to meet with Mr Kim in Pyongyang.

Mr Trump took office vowing to stop North Korea from its pursuit of a working long-range nuclear-tipped missile.

He has oscillated between threats and insults directed at Mr Kim that have fuelled fears of war, and more conciliatory rhetoric.

The historic announcement comes during a period of unparalleled tumult in Mr Trump’s West Wing, with the president’s policy agenda stalled and morale sinking as staff departures proliferate and disrupt efforts to instil more discipline and order.

Mr Chung, who credited Mr Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign for the diplomatic opening on the nuclear issue, said Mr Kim understands that routine US-South Korea military drills “must continue”.

Mr Kim, who had used his annual New Year’s address to warn the United States of a supposed nuclear button on his desk, has an economy that has been battered by heavy international sanctions.

Mr Trump said the sanctions against the North will remain in place until there’s a deal.

Press Association

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News