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Trump Accepts Invitation From North Korean Leader To Meet Face-To-Face


North Korea's leader has asked President Trump to meet him to talk about denuclearization, and President Trump has said yes. South Korea's national security chief made the announcement at the White House after he met separately with both leaders.


CHUNG EUI-YONG: He expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible. President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong Un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.

KELLY: We've got NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen with us to talk about this surprise announcement that took place this evening in the White House driveway. Hi, Michele.


KELLY: Talk about surprise developments. What's the White House saying about this invitation?

KELEMEN: Well, they're saying that President Trump will accept the invitation. They say it will be at a time and place still to be determined. A spokesperson also says that the U.S. looks forward to the denuclearization of North Korea but that until that happens, the U.S. is going to maintain what they're calling this maximum pressure campaign - that is, sanctions and diplomatic pressure.

KELLY: And what more is South Korea saying about how this came to pass? This is something they've been helping broker in talks both in Pyongyang and with the White House.

KELEMEN: That's right. I mean, it's been quite fascinating to watch. Chung Eui-yong, the national security adviser from South Korea, took this rare trip to Pyongyang and then came here to the White House to brief the White House on this. He spent a bit of time this evening praising President Trump for getting us to this junction. The White House says president greatly appreciated those nice words.

And then on the North Korean side, he claims that the North has agreed not to carry out missile and nuclear tests during any talks and that the North Korean leader understands that the U.S. and South Korea are going to do their normal military exercises. Again, this is coming from one side in what's likely to be very complex negotiations.

KELLY: Michele, is the Trump administration ready for this kind of negotiation? And I ask because we've heard so much about the very thin bench at the State Department right now.

KELEMEN: Exactly. The State Department insists they have a deep bench. But, you know, recently we've seen the special representative on North Korea, the one guy who's been having contacts with North Koreans over the years, Joseph Yun - he retired. The assistant secretary of state for the Asia region just had her confirmation hearing, and it's been a long time - long process there. There's still no nominee for ambassador in South Korea, though there's an acting, you know - a career person who's filling that job right now.

So there are a lot of questions that have been raised about whether they're really going to be ready for this. At today's meeting, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would have been there, but he's off in Africa. So he had his deputy, John Sullivan, at the talks. There was not anyone from the East Asia bureau.

KELLY: Right. Well, so that's how this might be staffed. What about what the Trump administration will try to get out of it? After all these months of fire and fury rhetoric, is it clear what message the U.S. team will be bringing to these talks?

KELEMEN: We don't really know much about their thinking other than they say they want denuclearization. We did hear some words of caution this week from White House officials who say that, you know, North Korea has a 27-year-long history of breaking agreements. So while the U.S. is keeping an open mind, North Korea has earned our skepticism. That was a quote from one official. And the North Koreans are going to want other things, too. They're going to want security guarantees, a peace treaty rather than an armistice. So, you know, there's a lot to talk about.

KELLY: Absolutely. NPR's Michele Kelemen, thanks for talking to us about it tonight.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.