WASHINGTON — North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, has invited President Donald Trump to meet for negotiations over its nuclear program, an audacious diplomatic overture that would bring together two strong-willed, idiosyncratic leaders who have traded threats of war.
The South Korean official, Chung Eui-yong, who conveyed the invitation, told reporters that Trump had accepted it and would meet with Kim by May.
For Trump, a meeting with Kim, a leader he has derided as "Little Rocket Man," is a breathtaking gamble. No sitting U.S. president has ever met a North Korean leader, and Trump himself had ruled out direct talks unless North Korea takes measurable steps toward relinquishing its nuclear arsenal.
Chung's announcement came at the end of another day of high drama at the White House, in which the president defied his own party by announcing sweeping tariffs on steel and aluminum imports and sought to ignore a mushrooming scandal over a pornographic film actress who claims to have had an affair with him.
This week, Chung, President Moon Jae In's national security adviser, and his director of National Intelligence Service, Suh Hoon, made a two-day trip to North Korea, where they became the first South Korean officials to meet Kim.
Kim made promises to the South Korean envoys, which Seoul hoped would meet the U.S. conditions for starting a dialogue with North Korea. Trump has said he could start talks with North Korea "only under the right conditions."
The Trump administration has repeatedly said it would start talks with North Korea only when it first agreed to discuss denuclearization. U.S. officials have also demanded that North Korea take some actions to show its sincerity.
On Monday, when he met with the South Korean envoys, Kim said North Korea was willing to start negotiations with the United States on denuclearization. He also proposed a moratorium on all nuclear and missile tests while such talks are underway, and withdrew North Korea's objection to the joint military exercises that the United States and South Korea will start in early April.
Chung and Suh, the South Korean envoys, visited the White House on Thursday to brief Trump and his staff on their meeting with Kim. They have said they were also carrying additional messages from North Korea that they would deliver to Washington.
Their trips to Pyongyang and Washington were part of South Korea's efforts to help persuade North Korea and the United States to ease their standoff and start a dialogue. At the same time, South Korea has been pressing ahead with its own efforts to improve ties with North Korea. The two Koreas have agreed to hold a summit meeting between Moon and Kim in late April.
Since taking power in May 2017, Moon, the South Korean leader, has repeatedly called for a dialogue with North Korea, even as Trump has escalated pressure on North Korea with increasingly harsh sanctions, more vigorous military maneuvers and a string of hostile Twitter posts.
Kim rattled the region last year with a series of nuclear and long-range missile tests. Then he suddenly responded to Moon's overtures for dialogue in his New Year's Day speech, in which he proposed talks with South Korea, saying he was willing to send athletes to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
North Korea sent hundreds of athletes, cheerleaders and singers to the Games in February. The two Koreas have also exchanged envoys in recent weeks, including Kim's sister, Kim Yo-Jong, who met Moon in Seoul in February.
South Korea hoped to leverage the nascent inter-Korean détente created during the Olympics to help mediate a dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang and avoid the risk of military conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea.