SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump plan to meet in May for nuclear disarmament talks, a whiplash development that would put two leaders who've repeatedly insulted, threatened and dismissed each other in the same room, possibly in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
It would have been an unthinkable suggestion just a few months ago, when the insults were at their peak — Trump was a "senile dotard" and Kim was "Little Rocket Man" — and the North was snapping off regular weapons tests in a dogged march toward its goal of a viable nuclear arsenal that can threaten the U.S. mainland.
Liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who some believe has maneuvered the two leaders to this position, reflected the hope and relief many here feel about the planned summit when he declared Friday that it will be a "historical milestone" that will put the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula "really on track."
But there's also considerable skepticism.
North Korea, after all, has made a habit of reaching out, after raising fears during previous crises, with offers of dialogue meant to win aid and concessions. Some speculate that the North is trying to peel Washington away from its ally Seoul, weaken crippling sanctions and buy time for nuclear development. It has also, from the U.S. point of view, repeatedly cheated on past nuclear deals.
And now the North has landed a face-to-face meeting with the leader of the world's most powerful country, a nation that North Korea has long sought to draw into talks that it hopes would establish a peace treaty to end the technically still-active Korean War and drive out all U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, removing what the North says is a hostile encirclement of its territory by Washington and Seoul.
Trump's hastily reached decision to accept the meeting sent White House staff scrambling.
Earlier Thursday, South Korean national security director Chung Eui-yong had briefed Trump and other top U.S. officials about a rare meeting with Kim in the North Korean capital.
Trump then made a surprise visit to the White House press briefing room to alert reporters of an upcoming "major statement" on North Korea by South Korea.
At a quickly called appearance on a White House driveway, Chung told reporters that Kim had "expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible" and that "President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong Un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization."
"Great progress being made," Trump tweeted after the announcement.
That remains to be seen.
North Korea still produces propaganda declaring its continuing dedication to the "treasured sword" of its nuclear program. Washington still remains publicly dedicated to annual war games with the South that the North claims are invasion rehearsal —they're expected to resume next month, after being postponed during the Winter Olympics in the South — and to keeping 28,500 troops in the South and 50,000 in Japan, largely as a way to deter North Korean aggression.
North Korea is engaged in "a ploy to serve its own interests" and make Kim look like "a bold leader of a normal, peace-loving nuclear power," according to Duyeon Kim, a visiting research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum think tank in Seoul.
"But in spite of the deceptive cloak, the agreement posed an opportunity for the United States. It put the ball in Washington's court, and provides a window for the Trump administration to engage and test the regime through direct negotiations," Kim wrote on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists web page.