RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
After months of tense, even hostile exchanges between the U.S. and North Korea, President Donald Trump has accepted an invitation to meet with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. South Korean diplomats were key in getting the leaders to agree to a meeting after having their own high-level talks with the North's leader. President Trump immediately said yes to this invitation. South Korea says it's going to happen by May. NPR's Elise Hu joins us now from South Korea.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey, there.
MARTIN: It is worth just remembering what the state of the Trump-Kim Jong Un relationship was just months ago. So indulge me for a moment, I'm going to read this tweet from November of last year. From the president - why would Kim Jong Un insult me by calling me old when I would never call him short and fat? Oh, well, I try so hard to be his friend, and maybe someday that will happen.
So who knows if they're going to be friends, but looks like they're going to sit down at a table. I mean, remind us how we are now at this point.
HU: Yeah, maybe before May that will happen according to South Korea. And I mentioned South Korea because the Moon administration here has been furiously and deftly working to get to this point. As you mentioned, last year we saw a lot of tension. You had a real increase because of North Korea's successful tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles that could, in theory, reach the U.S. mainland. Then you had President Trump's various threats and one at the U.N. to, quote, "totally destroy North Korea." He's insulted Kim in various ways, Little Rocket Man and so forth.
MARTIN: And so forth.
HU: But Kim Jong Un really pivoted. He started this year by saying his nuclear force is complete, made an overture to Seoul regarding the Olympics.
HU: Seoul has jumped on that. And it's led to, eventually, this moment.
MARTIN: So Seoul must be happy. I mean, the government there, as you say, has been key in brokering this.
HU: It is. And the administration says that the North is taking this further, agreeing to talk about denuclearization and a pause in any further testing while diplomatic engagement happens. But the hard work of diplomacy is just beginning. And the civil society here in South Korea as well as in Japan, regional neighbor, is stunned by this news, greeting it with some hesitation given the past in which North Korea hasn't kept up its agreements.
MARTIN: So South Korea's national security director who met with Kim Jong Un and then met with President Trump yesterday made this announcement - said that this potential summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un could happen by May. Is that realistic?
HU: A lot of analysts tell me that this timeline is a stretch, given the lack of depth on Asia and specifically North Korea expertise in the State Department and within the White House National Security Council. When it comes to big head of state meetings - or heads of state meetings, there's diplomats on both sides who hammer out the important questions beforehand, questions like - what will we talk about? What does the U.S. expect to get? What is it willing to give? So...
MARTIN: Because a misstep...
HU: ...Who will do this important work?
MARTIN: ...could be crucial, right? You have to parse your words carefully in these conversations.
HU: Exactly. And usually, there's a whole team of diplomats at mid levels that work out what happens before heads of state sit down together. And a lot of roles are just unfilled right now. State lost its point man on the Koreas, Joe Yun, to retirement. Trump has yet to appoint an ambassador to South Korea. But there is a career diplomat who's been here as acting ambassador doing a lot of careful work. And how much is the White House going to be able to coordinate with state and with the Pentagon? These sound like a lot of wonky questions, but they have to be answered...
HU: ...In order for a negotiation with outcomes to take place.
MARTIN: Right. The process is important.
So you brought up the previous negotiations. And North Korea hasn't exactly been consistent or kept all their promises. Right? It's agreed before to pauses or to roll back development just to extract aid. So what would be different this time?
HU: South Korea realizes this. It's leading the diplomacy on it, and it's pledging not to get played and not to repeat the mistakes of the past. So we're likely going to see South Korea pressing for reasonable verification of denuclearization should that process actually begin. You know, we say again and again, you know, denuclearization isn't an event. It's a process. And North Korea, they are extremely skilled negotiators. John Delury, who is a China historian and North Korea watcher here in Seoul, he explains the challenge ahead.
JOHN DELURY: They're going to know the Americans very well. President Trump cannot just waltz into this kind of summit. He's going to need all the resources of the American government - expertise, you know, from the military, national security advisers, State Department diplomats who have dealt with the North Koreans. So this is really going to take a dream team.
MARTIN: Dream team.
HU: That's in order to prevent miscues - exactly - because the stakes are quite high.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Elise Hu for us in Seoul this morning.
Thank you so much, Elise.
HU: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.