Trump Agrees to Meet Kim Jong-Un for Denuclearization Talks

A man watches President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during an Aug. 17 news program in Seoul, South Korea. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File) -- The Associated Press | By Richard Sisk

President Donald Trump agreed Thursday to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in May for face-to-face peace talks on the "total denuclearization" of the peninsula.

South Korea's Chung Eui-yong, head of Seoul's National Security Office, made the breakthrough announcement at a hastily arranged conference on the White House lawn.

He gave no specific date or place for the summit but said it would be in May and would be intended to lay the groundwork for "the total denuclearization" of Kim's arsenal.

Chung, who took no questions, said the talks offered "the possibility of a peaceful resolution" to the tensions on the peninsula raised by the North's nuclear and ballistic missile tests intended to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the mainland U.S.

In an earlier meeting in the White House, Chung said, "I explained to President Trump that his leadership, and his maximum pressure policy, along with international solidarity, brought us to this juncture."

Despite the optimistic tone of his remarks, Chung warned against expecting too much from the summit. The U.S. and South Korea must remain on guard "until North Korea matches its words with concrete action," he said.

Trump heralded the announcement earlier Thursday when he unexpectedly popped into the White House press room to tell reporters to expect a major development to be outlined at 7 p.m.

Trump, who took no questions, indicated that the announcement would come from Seoul, but Chung read the announcement from the White House lawn.

The announcement followed meetings at the White House on Thursday between Chung and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the White House national security adviser. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had been expected to join the meeting, and Chung indicated that Trump also was present.

Chung, the top adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in on defense and security issues, met in Pyongyang earlier this week with North Korea's Kim on denuclearization.

That meeting followed on the diplomatic breakthrough last month when the North and South Korean teams marched together into the stadium for the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The potential thaw with the North was made possible when the U.S. and South Korea agreed to postpone long-planned joint ground, air and naval military exercises for the duration of the Olympics and the Paralympics, which are scheduled to end March 18.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at the time that the exercises would commence at the conclusion of the Paralympics, but it was unclear whether the announcement Thursday would lead to a further postponement.

In response to the announcement, Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund arms control group, told MSNBC, "This is a moment very few of us thought we would see. At least this gives us the possibility of a peaceful solution."

The basis for peace talks had been thought to be the "freeze-for-freeze" concept, meaning that the North would halt its nuclear and ballistic tests in return for the U.S. and South Korea halting their joint military exercise, Cirincione said, but Chung made no mention of a mutual freeze.

Trump later Tweeted, "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!"

In a statement, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said that Trump "greatly appreciates the nice words of the South Korean delegation and President Moon."

"He will accept the invitation to meet with Kim Jong-un at a place and time to be determined," she said. "In the meantime, all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain."

President Moon's office in Seoul said the Trump-Kim talks would probably take place toward the end of May. Moon's office also gave no venue for the talks, but one possibility would be at the international site at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea.

Commentators were mixed on their expectations for the potentially historic talks that, in best outcome, could lead to a peace agreement replacing the armistice that has existed on the peninsula since 1953.

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told CNN, "This is a positive step. I think the world is breathing a sigh of relief," but "a lot of caution has to be exercised."

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said, "I'm very happy for this development" and, at the same time, "I'm pretty skeptical about it."

He told CNN that he was concerned the North Koreans might use the talks to attempt to split the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at