Author: Choe Sang-Hun
Posted on:  THE NEW YORK TIMES | March 29th, 2018

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea will meet for the first time on April 27, officials said on Thursday, setting a date for talks meant to continue the recent détente on the Korean Peninsula and pave the way for discussions between Mr. Kim and President Trump.

Early this month Mr. Kim agreed to a meeting with Mr. Moon, part of a flurry of diplomacy around Pyongyang’s nuclear program that began with the North’s participation last month in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Senior negotiators from both Koreas met Thursday at Panmunjom, the so-called truce village on the countries’ border, to agree on a date and discuss other aspects of the summit meeting.

The two Korean leaders will meet at Peace House, a South Korean building inside Panmunjom, according to a joint statement the negotiators issued at the end of their talks on Thursday. Peace House lies south of the demarcation line that bisects Panmunjom, which means that Mr. Kim would become the first North Korean leader to set foot in the South since the Korean War.

Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, the South’s chief delegate to the Panmunjom talks, hinted at progress toward including denuclearization in the agenda for the Kim-Moon meeting. But he said the two Koreas might need another round of high-level talks in coming weeks to settle the matter.

“The South and North agreed on efforts to make the summit successful, sharing its historic significance in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, settling peace there and improving inter-Korean relations,” Mr. Cho told reporters.

The meeting will be the third ever held between leaders of the two Koreas. Mr. Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il, met with the South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun in 2000 and 2007, respectively, in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

South Korean envoys who met with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang early this month said he had expressed willingness to negotiate with the United States about normalizing ties and giving up his country’s nuclear weapons in return for security guarantees. Mr. Kim also promised to suspend all nuclear and missile tests while talks were underway, the envoys said.

Mr. Kim offered then to meet directly with Mr. Trump, who quickly accepted. No date has been set, but Mr. Trump said he was willing to meet Mr. Kim by May, after Mr. Moon’s discussions with him.

This week, Mr. Kim surprised both South Korea and the United States by secretly visiting Beijing, in his first trip outside North Korea since taking power. He met with President Xi Jinping of China, the North’s traditional communist ally, in a bid to mend frayed ties before meeting Mr. Moon and Mr. Trump.

In his discussions with Mr. Xi, Mr. Kim reaffirmed his intention to meet with the two leaders, according to Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency. North Korea has yet to announce those plans.

Mr. Moon’s office, in its first comment on the Beijing meeting, said on Thursday that it was a welcome development, calling it “highly significant” that Mr. Kim had reportedly confirmed his willingness to discuss denuclearization and meet with the American and South Korean presidents.

Mr. Trump’s ready acceptance of direct talks with Mr. Kim stunned much of the world. If that meeting indeed takes place — some American officials have expressed doubts — Mr. Trump will be the first sitting American president to meet a North Korean leader. The United States fought against the North during the Korean War and has no diplomatic ties with it.

American officials have been reaching out to the North Koreans in hopes of hearing directly from them about Mr. Kim’s intentions. Officials hope that Mr. Moon’s meeting with Mr. Kim will provide further clues to Mr. Kim’s strategy and help Washington prepare for Mr. Trump’s own meeting with the North Korean leader.

Officials and analysts disagree about whether Mr. Kim’s recent outreach represents a real move toward dismantling his nuclear arsenal or a short-term ploy to confuse his enemies, gain relief from international sanctions and buy time to advance his arms programs further.

When Mr. Kim met with Mr. Xi on Monday, he proposed “phased, synchronized” moves toward denuclearization, which is the same approach the North insisted on in past negotiations with Washington. In those talks, the North offered to take incremental steps toward giving up its nuclear program, beginning with a freeze, and demanded that the United States reciprocate with incentives like fuel oil shipments.

Past discussions with the North produced agreements that called for the eventual dismantlement of the program. But they all eventually collapsed, as Washington and Pyongyang accused each other of reneging on those phased measures.

Mr. Kim’s call for step-by-step denuclearization appears to preclude the kind of rapid dismantlement that John R. Bolton called for this month, days before Mr. Trump appointed him as his national security adviser. Analysts suspect Mr. Kim’s approach would result in drawn-out negotiations with no assurance that the North will ever denuclearize completely.

Still, Mr. Moon’s office, which abhors the prospect of military action against the North, says negotiations are the only realistic approach. Mr. Moon has also called for synchronized steps leading to the North’s denuclearization, starting with a freeze in its nuclear activities. But the South Koreans and the Americans have both said they will not repeat the mistakes of the past, a reference to Mr. Trump’s assertions that prior presidents gave North Korea too many concessions and got little in return.

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