(RNN) – The White House and South Korean officials announced a groundbreaking meeting between President Donald Trump and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un, planned for sometime by May.
The two leaders, and their countries, share a rocky history. The meeting, and negotiations if those follow, face substantial hurdles before the history-making promise of this development is realized.
Kim made the first move, delivering the invitation to meet via South Korean officials on Thursday. According to the statement made by South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong, Kim “expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible.” The White House said Trump has accepted.
The sudden thaw is a stark reversal from last year.
As North Korea made notable strides in its pursuit of nuclear weapons capable of striking the U.S., Trump repeatedly taunted Kim. The president called him “Rocket Man” in public statements and on Twitter.
I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2017
In September, Trump said “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission” at the United Nations General Assembly. He threatened that the U.S. could “totally destroy North Korea” if provoked.
Kim responded in kind. After Trump’s UN statements he released a volley of insults through the North's state news agency, KCNA. Among other things, he infamously called Trump a "mentally deranged dotard."
Kim also said the man he has now invited to a meeting the world hopes will lead to peace was "unfit" to lead a country and "a rogue and a gangster fond of playing with fire, rather than a politician."
A face-to-face meeting would be a much different dynamic, however.
Kim, meanwhile, wowed his South Korean visitors on their recent trip that served as a prelude to Thursday's overture.
If the men can establish a kind of unorthodox rapport, it could lead to the kind of unexpected breakthrough Richard Nixon achieved with China in 1972.
"If they get along, if there's a certain chemistry, there can be tremendous progress," said former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta on Anderson Cooper's CNN program.
Panetta was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff in 1994, when the administration reached an aid deal with North Korea in exchange for a commitment to freeze, and eventually dismantle, its nuclear weapons program.
That history, of course, is also working against Trump. Past U.S. presidents have repeatedly reached agreements with the North only to see them later fall apart.
In 1991, George H.W. Bush announced a series of unilateral denuclearization initiatives. This led to North Korea agreeing to a number of measures that, by 1993, they were walking back from.
After Clinton's 1994 effort, he tried to bring the North back to the negotiating table as they began testing ballistic missiles in 1998. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright even traveled to Pyongyang in 2000. The initiative collapsed in 2002.
The so-called "Six Party Talks" led by China sought to resolve the issue throughout much of the George W. Bush administration. They ended with the North's angry withdrawal in 2009, at the start of Barack Obama's presidency.
Obama tried to take a hard line with the North, instituting an increasingly aggressive sanctions regime and ordering cyberattacks on the North's missile development program. It ultimately failed to deter Kim's advances.
"They use negotiations to buy time," Christopher Hill, who was part of Bush's negotiating team with the North, told The New York Times.
The heart of the problem is in the countries' competing demands. The U.S. has generally considered any nuclear activity by the North unacceptable, and tried to use economic incentives to give up their nuclear ambitions.
North Korea meanwhile sees nuclear weapons as a singular guarantee against an American invasion. The more than 20,000 troops the U.S. keeps stationed in South Korea as a post-Korean War guarantee of the South's defense, the North sees as an existential threat.
.@willripleyCNN: Kim Jong Un wants to stay in power for decades after President Trump is out of office. He has calculated this is his best survival strategy https://t.co/B2dleFMTDp— Anderson Cooper 360° (@AC360) March 9, 2018
The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said the North has "made it clear that it would have no reason to keep nuclear weapons if the military threat to the North was eliminated and its security guaranteed.”
That likely refers to America's very presence on the Korean Peninsula.
For now, some divides have been bridged. The president tweeted that for now the North has agreed to no new missile testing. Freezes have often been an American condition for talks.
According to the South's statement at the White House on Thursday, the North has also backed off its demand that the South and the U.S. end joint military exercises as a precondition for talks.
What's left to be seen now is if a meeting between Trump and Kim, proud and unpredictable personalities, can lead to a breakthrough that has eluded the enemies for almost three decades.
"This is a positive step. The world is breathing a sigh of relief as a result of having these negotiations, even having this kind of meeting," Panetta said on CNN. "But ... a lot of caution has to be exercised here it in order to make sure that what is achieved here does not fail the way past efforts have failed."
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