Senior North and South Korean officials began preparing for next month’s summit with talks in the tense border area Thursday, while President Trump expressed optimism over a diplomatic push to resolve the standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
The meeting was held on the northern side of the truce village of Panmunjom, days after North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong Un made a surprise train trip to China to reaffirm ties and declare that he’s committed to denuclearization.
It also comes ahead of U.S.-South Korean war games, which are due to begin on Sunday after being delayed to ease tensions for the Olympics and Paralympics. The annual military exercises usually infuriate the North, which considers them a rehearsal for an invasion. But Kim reportedly said he understood they would go on as planned this year.
President Donald Trump said his Chinese counterpart told him the meeting with Kim “went very well” and the North Korean leader “looks forward to his meeting with me.”
However, he insisted that he’ll maintain punishing sanctions and other moves aimed at pressuring the North Korean regime to abandon its nuclear program.
“For years and through many administrations, everyone said that peace and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was not even a possibility,” Trump said Wednesday in a tweet. “Now there is a good chance that Kim Jong Un will do what is right for his people and for humanity.”
While many North Korea watchers remain deeply skeptical about Pyongyang’s motives, Seoul and Pyongyang continued to take steps toward improving relations.
The high-level delegations were led by South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon and North Korea’s Ri Son Gwon, chairman of a state agency that deals with inter-Korean affairs.
They planned to discuss the date and agenda of next month’s summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
The two leaders agreed to meet following a series of breakthroughs that began with the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics, which were held in the South.
That has eased tensions after months of North Korean nuclear and missile tests and saber rattling by both sides that prompted fears of a new war on the divided peninsula.
“There have been many unprecedented dramatic events over the past 80 days,” Ri said in remarks before the closed-door meeting began.
Cho thanked Ri for what he called a warm welcome and said the two sides “should consult honestly today to ensure a successful summit” according to the will of the top leaders of the North and South.
Trump agreed to hold what would be the first-ever U.S.-North Korean summit by May after South Korean officials relayed a message that Kim had invited him to meet as soon as possible and was willing to suspend nuclear and missile tests.
Kim was quoted as confirming that during his meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this week, which took place under a cloud of secrecy.
But he also signaled that Pyongyang will be demanding a price for its recent goodwill.
“The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace,” Kim was quoted as saying by China’s state news agency Xinhua.There was no elaboration, but the North Koreans have in the past used talks to try to gain U.S. concessions and humanitarian assistance.
Many North Korea watchers have cautioned that Kim is unlikely to give up his nuclear weapons and may be trying to create divisions among the United States, South Korea and China to disrupt the increasing effects of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure against it.
South Korea welcomed the meetings in Beijing.
“It is very meaningful that Chairman Kim Jong Un clearly expressed his willingness to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and hold a South-North Korea summit and North Korea-U.S. summit at the North-China summit,” presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
“We hope a clear foundation for permanent denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of a peace regime will emerge in the upcoming South-North Korea summit and the North-U.S. summit,” he said.
The Moon-Kim meeting will be only the third summit between the rival Koreas since the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty. The leaders are expected to have discussions about Kim’s summit with Trump high on the agenda.
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