President Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by May for high-level talks toward a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong said outside the White House on Thursday.
It would be the first face-to-face meeting between a U.S. president and a North Korean leader.
The announcement comes days after North Korea said it was open to talks and offered to suspend nuclear missile and weapons tests during them.
Here are answers to the key questions about the latest development.
Why did Trump accept the offer?
That remains unclear. In the days leading up to Thursday's announcement, the Trump administration said it wanted to see some concrete actions before agreeing to meet with Kim. The administration never made clear what those actions might be, and North Korea hasn't taken any visible steps toward denuclearization in recent days. North Korea has agreed to refrain from testing nuclear weapons or missiles and to accept that the United States and South Korea will conduct regularly scheduled joint military exercises. Those assurances were enough to convince Trump to meet with Kim, the White House said.
Is North Korea serious about giving up its nuclear arsenal?
Probably not, but if it consents to talks and suspends nuclear tests as promised, it still could result in progress that further defuses tensions.
“It’s not an unconditional commitment to get rid of its nuclear program,” said Robert Einhorn, an arms control analyst at the Brookings Institution. “It’s not clear they’re committing to anything at this point.”
Is there an upside even if North Korea doesn't give up its weapons?
Holding talks, particularly between two leaders who often rely on their instincts, can sometimes yield unanticipated results. “It is a big window of opportunity,” said Jenny Town, assistant director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Even if North Korea doesn't agree to dismantle its nuclear arsenal — which the United States has demanded — it could agree to a suspension of future nuclear activity. That, in turn, could lessen tensions and reduce the chances of a mishap that could lead to war. It also might lead to further talks about a comprehensive disarmament.
Should the United States trust North Korea?
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. “We shouldn’t be under any illusion that they are going to give up nuclear weapons easily,” Town said.
Previous efforts to contain North Korea's nuclear arsenal, including an agreement in 1994, ended in failure amid strong evidence that North Korea was moving ahead with an enrichment program despite the deal with the United States.
North Korea has also regularly objected to visits from weapons inspectors during previous discussions of disarmament, said Balazs Szalontai, an associate professor at Korea University.
What does North Korea want in return for agreeing to talks?
Ultimately, North Korea would like to unite the entire peninsula under its rule. That would mean removing U.S. troops from South Korea and getting security guarantees from the United States that it would not attempt to overthrow the Kim regime. The U.S. has more than 25,000 troops based in South Korea.
North Korea also wants the lifting of international sanctions that have pinched the nation’s struggling economy. In previous negotiations, they have also asked for financial incentives. In the 1994 agreement, South Korea agreed to pay most of the $4 billion cost for light water reactors in North Korea to replace reactors that could produce weapons grade plutonium.
Duyeon Kim, visiting senior research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum, cautioned that Pyongyang and Washington likely have very different ideas on what denuclearization would entail and what the end goals for each country are. She said if the White House comes away from these talks convinced North Korea won't abandon its weapons after negotiations, it could then prompt a military response.
"A potential risk is that if Washington believes Pyongyang is not interested in abandoning weapons even after talks, then the White House might be further convinced that it should use military force to solve the issue," she said. "That's the potential risk."
Why is the North making this offer now?
It is the result of efforts by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to ease tensions on the peninsula and get the United States and North Korea to talk with each other.
The first step was getting North Korea to accept Moon’s invitation to participate in last month’s Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. That paved the way for this week’s visit by members of the Moon administration to meet with Kim.
Conditions in the country could also be spurring the efforts. The Wall Street Journal and CNN reported that sanctions led China to drastically clamp down on trade across its border areas with North Korea, one of the main sources of hard currency and goods into Kim's country. Observers say the impact is being sharply felt in North Korea through factory closures and rising prices.
A North Korean soldier who defected across the demilitarized zone that divides the two countries in November also revealed shocking levels of deprivation. Doctors found enormous parasitic worms in his digestive tract and raw kernels of corn in his stomach. Soldiers are higher up on the rations list than ordinary citizens, so the uncooked corn was an alarming sign.
Why is it a big deal that Trump himself is going?
A meeting of top leaders makes the possibility of a major breakthrough more likely, since they can make immediate decisions that subordinates couldn't. A summit like this also raises expectations and builds momentum, which could also hasten a decision that would lead to denuclearization.
What could go wrong?
Plenty. If the two leaders fail to reach an agreement it could be a major setback for efforts to find a solution to North Korea's nuclear buildup. With the two leaders holding the talks there is little margin for error and it would be difficult to pick up the pieces of a failed summit. The meeting would give Kim the prestige he craves, but if he doesn't make any concessions to the United States it will look like Trump was outsmarted. That could wind up heightening tensions.
Contributing: Tom Maresca from Seoul.