WASHINGTON: North Korea's Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump will meet by May to secure a deal to remove nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula, a senior South Korean official said after talks at the White House.
"I told President Trump that at our meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he's committed to denuclearisation," South Korean National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong said after returning from a recent visit to Pyongyang.
"Kim pledged that North Korea will refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests," he told reporters, in an extraordinary appearance on the White House driveway.
"President Trump appreciated the briefing, and said he would meet Kim Jong Un by May to achieve permanent denuclearisation."
He added: "South Korea, the US and our many partners around the world remain fully and resolutely committed to the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
"Along with President Trump we are optimistic about continuing a diplomatic process to test the possibility of a peaceful resolution.
"South Korea, the US and our many partners stand together in insisting that we not repeat the mistakes of the past, and that the pressure will continue until North Korea matches his words with concrete actions."
The White House confirmed that Trump has agreed to meet with North Korea's Kim to seek a deal on denuclearisation, while stressing US sanctions will remain in place.
"President Trump greatly appreciates the nice words of the South Korean delegation and President Moon," press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement following the announcement made by South Korea.
"He will accept the invitation to meet with Kim Jong Un at a place and time to be determined. We look forward to the denuclearisation of North Korea. In the meantime, all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain."
"A meeting is being planned," Trump tweeted after speaking to Chung.
He added: "Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached."
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later said that the decision to hold talks with Kim was made by Trump himself.
"That is a decision the president took himself. I spoke to him very early this morning about that decision and we had a very good conversation," Tillerson told reporters during a visit to the African nation of Djibouti.
"President Trump has said for some time that he was open to talks and he would willingly meet with Kim when conditions were right," the top US diplomat said. "And I think in the president's judgment that time has arrived now."
Tillerson added that the talks will take "some weeks" to arrange.
He also said the United States was surprised at how "forward-leaning" Kim was in his conversations with a visiting South Korean delegation. He said it was the strongest indication to date of Kim's "not just willingness but really his desire for talks".
However, one experts believes that it is still uncertain if a meeting will take place.
"I think the US will wait to see how the North-South talks in April turn out before making a final decision on whether to meet, and I see three possible scenarios," said the president of the Institute of World Studies in the University of Tokyo, Takashi Kawakami.
"The first is that North Korea will agree to denuclearisation, second that North Korea will agree to a nuclear freeze with the US, and third that it withdraws its approach and returns to missile launches."
Trump's aides have been wary of North Korea's diplomatic overtures because of its history of reneging on international commitments.
Daniel Russel, until last April the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, the most senior US diplomatic position for Asia, noted there had still been no public comment from North Korea about the content of Monday’s meeting with the South Korean delegation.
"Let’s hear from the North Koreans themselves what they are proposing and what they are willing to do. There is plenty of reason to be cautious, given their track record," Russel said.
"Second, let’s read the fine print. The North has made peace overtures in the past that did not hold up under scrutiny.
"Also remember that (North Korea) has for many years proposed that the president of the United States personally engage with North Korea's leaders as an equal - one nuclear power to another," he said. "What is new isn’t the proposal, it's the response."
Chung and National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon flew to Washington earlier on Thursday to explain North Korea's stance on possible future talks with Washington and the prospect of Pyongyang suspending nuclear tests if the security of the North's government is assured.
In what would be a key North Korean concession, Chung said Kim "understands that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue".
Pyongyang had previously demanded that such joint drills be suspended in order for any US talks to go forward.
Earlier Thursday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that though "talks about talks" might be possible with Pyongyang, denuclearisation negotiations were likely a long way off.
Other US politicians were a little bit more optimistic about the prospective meeting.
"After numerous discussions with President Trump, I firmly believe his strong stand against North Korea and its nuclear aggression gives us the best hope in decades to resolve this threat peacefully," said Republican senator Lindsey Graham on Twitter.
"I am not naive. I understand that if the past is an indication of the future, North Korea will be all talk and no action. However, I do believe that North Korea now believes President Trump will use military force if he has to.
JOINT MILITARY EXERCISE
Trump in the past has derided the North Korean leader as a “maniac”, referred to him as “little rocket man” and threatened in a speech to the United Nations last year to "totally destroy" his country of 26 million people if it attacked the United States or one of its allies.
Kim had responded by calling the US president a “mentally deranged US dotard”.
Trump has also been scathing in his criticism of previous US administrations for not doing more to rein in the North Korean government.
"He believes that he has them on the ropes, or at a disadvantage right now. They only made the gesture because they feel the pressure badly and so this a good time," a second senior administration official said.
A senior administration official said Trump agreed to meet Kim because Kim is the "one person who is able to make decisions under their authoritarian, uniquely authoritarian, or totalitarian system," a senior administration official said.
Tensions over North Korea rose to their highest in years in 2017, and the Trump administration has warned that all options are on the table, including military ones, in dealing with Pyongyang, which has pursued its weapons programs in defiance of ever tougher UN sanctions.
Signs of a thaw emerged this year, with North and South Korea resuming talks and North Korea attending the Winter Olympics. During the Pyongyang talks this week, the two Koreas agreed to hold their first summit since 2007 in late April.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said sanctions should not be eased for the sake of talks and that nothing less than denuclearisation of North Korea should be the final goal for talks.
China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, called on the United States and North Korea to hold talks as soon as possible, warning at a news briefing in Beijing on Thursday that things "will not be smooth sailing".
EFFECTS ON MARKET
Some experts believe that while the market sentiment is largely optimistic about the meeting, investors are still cautious.
"It's a relief to markets and definitely boosts sentiment but foreign investors would wait out until May to change any major investment decisions as any real progress will be shown then," said the director at South Korea's finance ministry Ko Kwang Hee.
One analyst also added that this meeting may signal positive news for South Korea in particular.
"This is certainly good news for financial markets, particularly for South Korea, as it signals progress, although the degree of thawing of tensions remain to be seen," said senior economist at Natixis Trinh Nguyen.
"We, and investors, have always believed that the North Korea crisis would not materially impact investment in South Korea as a conflict is unlikely even if tensions simmer.
"Investors will be cautious on excessive enthusiasm in a similar vein to excessive pessimism in recent escalation of tensions."