North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

US President Donald Trump agreed on Thursday evening, Washington-time, to meet North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un by the end of May.

The agreement – an historic one – was made following a briefing to Trump, and was itself followed by a speech delivered on the White House grounds by South Korean National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong, who earlier this week met Kim in Pyongyang.

During his briefing of Trump, Chung quoted the North’s leader as saying, “I will be able to produce a big outcome if I meet and talk to President Donald Trump,” Yonhap reports.

Unusually, the South Koreans – who are playing the role of intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington – did the talking, with the normally effusive Trump remaining in the background. However, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that Trump would “accept the invitation to meet with” Kim, but that sanctions would remain in place. The exact timing has not yet been announced, but the meeting will take place by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Kim has – according to the South Koreans – agreed to freeze all missile and nuclear tests.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, via his spokesperson, hailed the upcoming meeting as “a historic milestone.” Even allowing for the hyperbole common to diplomacy, the agreement to meet is, indeed, a landmark one.

Moon may have personal reason to thank Kim, who, according to the Blue House, joked to South Korean delegates that he was halting missile tests so as not to disturb Moon. The latter has been forced by the tests to convene early morning national security meetings.

Never before has a leader of North Korea, a nation established in 1948 following the division of the peninsula in 1945, met a sitting US president.

The highest contact to date was a meeting between Kim’s father and predecessor, the late Kim Jong-il, and the then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. That meeting took place in the twilight months of the Clinton years, and the subsequent change of administration in Washington undercut its promise. Trump, however, still has three years on the clock.

Fast-paced process

Reinforcing the remarkable nature of the development is that fact that, mere months ago, the two leaders were trading war threats – such as comparing the size of their nuclear buttons – and insults (“dotard” versus “Little Rocket Man”).

The extraordinary speed of the ongoing process – from threats of war to the announcement of the meeting between the two leaders – is unprecedented in peninsular relations. For this, and for yesterday’s outcome, credit must go to the three key players in the drama.

South Korea’s national security chief, Chung Eui-yong, briefs US President Donald Trump at the Oval Office about his visit to North Korea, in Washington, on March 8, 2018. Photo: The Presidential Blue House / Yonhap via Reuters

Firstly, Donald Trump, whose dual policy of unprecedented bellicosity on the one hand, and periodic offers to personally meet Kim on the other, appears to have contributed to this result. Secondly, to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose embrace of North Korea during what he has called – with, it can now be said, considerable justification – the “Peace Olympics,” paved the path. And thirdly, to North Korean Marshal Kim Jong-un who has committed to something that neither his father or grandfather managed, and who is taking a very major risk with this unprecedented step.

Pyongyang has not yet confirmed any of this, but it follows intense inter-Korean politicking on the sidelines of the Winter Olympiad, most notably a meeting between Kim and senior South Korean envoys led by Chung, who made the Washington announcement. The announcement means Seoul and Washington have put their credibility on the line. It would be truly remarkable – one of the great diplomatic farces of recent times – if North Korea walked back any of the foregoing overtures.

Where will it happen?

A location has yet to be agreed upon, or possibly even discussed.

Kim went to school in Switzerland, making Geneva a possible location, although the Swiss city has marginal significance for either North Korea or the US. Kim’s relations with China – which previously hosted six-party talks – are at an all-time low and Kim has never met Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which would seem to rule out Beijing. Moreover, Kim is not known to have travelled outside his own borders since assuming power in 2011, so a first foreign trip to Washington also looks unlikely.

Trump might well fly into Pyongyang – after all, he is fond of military parades. Pyongyang does them like no other city, and Kim could throw a show-stopper for Trump.

In terms of optics, however, the truce village of Panmunjeom, which bestrides the inter-Korean border inside the DMZ, and which has been visited by a number of US presidents, could prove irresistible.

Moon and Kim will hold a summit in Panmunjeom in April – on the southern side of the border, which is itself a historical step of considerable significance. For Trump to walk through the DMZ and cross the border (the “military demarcation line”), which is painted in a white line on the concrete between iconic blue truce huts – would offer an ideal stage for diplomatic theatre by either (or both) leaders.

The rewards: Tension reduction; unexplored potential; even a possible friendship?

In addition to the near-term positives of lowered military tensions through May, the potential upsides range from the mild to massive.

“I was very happy to see this, it means peace is coming, like spring is coming,” Seoul’s Mayor Park Won-soon told Asia Times during a walkabout at a downtown pop-up market. “This is a very good sign for peace on the Korean peninsula and around the Asian region.”

Trump’s prioritizing of personal relationships – he has struck up friendships with Asian leaders as divergent as Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe – and his unconventional approach to diplomacy are potential pluses.

“The opportunity is massive here; Donald Trump does not really care about the conventions of diplomacy or international politics,” added Andray Abrahamian, the author of ‘North Korea and Myanmar: Divergent Paths.’ “He could make a grand bargain that perhaps no other president could consider.”

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in (second left) walks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo-jong (right) and North Korea’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong-nam, in February. Photo: Yonhap via AFP

Senior figures in previous US administrations were upbeat.

“I never got this close to [a meeting] of President Bush and the North Koreans,” Chris Hill, ex-President George W Bush’s six-party talks envoy, admitted to the BBC. “This is quite a development.”

Hill added that it was noteworthy that the North Koreans had agreed to discuss deuclearization, and had accepted South Korea-US spring military drills – drills they customarily express fury over.

Long-term Korean watchers expressed amazement. “Korean history is full of surprises, and this is another one,” said Don Kirk, an author and journalist who first covered Korea in 1972. “It is too early to say if this is a solution to the Korean confrontation, but it would appear to be a milestone.”

“I have been worried about the future here for some time, but feel elated and relieved today,” said Daniel Tudor, author of “Korea: The Impossible Country.” “People laughed at [Trump’s] ‘burgers with Kim Jong-un’ comment at the time, but it isn’t a joke now.”

Less eloquent, but perhaps capturing the zeitgeist with the utmost economy, was one North Korean expert who – when asked for his reaction to the news – simply ejaculated, “What the fuck!?”

Needless to say, though, the cynics – who might describe themselves as realists – were also out in force.

The risks: Negotiations will be a minefield, and if talks should collapse…

To begin with, both leaders are likely to claim credit for the breakthrough. “Trump has taken credit for his sanctions forcing Kim’s hand, while the North Koreans are going to be spreading the word that their nuclear and missile program has brought Trump to talks,” said Kirk. “Both will claim success, but neither can, until we see what the North Koreans are demanding and offering, and what will be the American response.”

One pundit gave the credit wholeheartedly to Trump.

“It looks like Donald Trump’s blackmail and bluff has worked so far: In the past, Kim would ask for a fortune to freeze his nuclear program, but now they will be satisfied with not being shot at,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kukmin University. However, he added that his hopes are low: “I don’t think [the summit] will be a history-making event, but it is likely to remain a good piece of trivia in history quizzes: the meeting between an American president and a North Korean dictator.”

While Kim told the South Korean envoys that he was willing to talk denuclearization, few actually expect him to abandon his entire arsenal – an arsenal his regime has written into the state constitution, and expended massive-but-scarce capital on, while courting enmity in the international community.

Total, irreversible and verifiable nuclear disarmament has long been the US position; it is unclear how much wiggle room there is for Washington to accept, say, a testing freeze, a production halt and/or international monitoring, rather than total surrender.

“The risk is that the Americans will be push for complete denuclearization as the only acceptable goal,” said Lankov.“If this is the case, the North Koreans will never accept it and it might backfire.”

“People laughed at Trump’s ‘burgers with Kim Jong-un’ comment at the time, but it isn’t a joke now”

All this makes the upcoming negotiating process a potential minefield. Even Seoul’s Mayor Park, who is in the same political camp as Moon, admitted “There may be obstacles.”

Perhaps most worryingly, an implosion of talks could plunge the peninsula back into tensions steeper even than last year’s and perhaps convince Washington that the only way forward is a military strike.

“There are huge risks here: If it goes badly and the famously changeable Trump doesn’t like what’s happening and leaves displeased, the door gets firmly slammed shut,” said Abrahamian. “End of the road.”

“I think we have succeeded in getting these two, and hopefully three leaders together,” added Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general, suggesting that a trilateral meeting should include Moon. “They are at the pinnacle of the decision-making process, so if these three meet, and cannot reach an agreement of some sort, there is no next step – this is a bigger crisis.”

Even so, in the near term at least, the prospects looks brighter than could have been expected at any time last year – and one expert had a message for the skeptics.

“No one knows what will happen, but it is at least certain that we are in a better place now than we have been for some time,” said author Tudor. “We have to give credit to Trump, and of course to Moon, for his persistence in pursuing peace in spite of the huge skepticism of many observers.”

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