Local reaction Friday to news that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump plan to meet in May for nuclear disarmament talks seemed to fall under the same category: surprise, skepticism and a belief it never would have happened a few months ago.
The whiplash development could 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 comes after Kim has referred to Trump as a “senile dotard” and Trump has repeatedly referred to the North Korean leader as “Little Rocket Man.” The possible summit would also take place as the North snaps off regular weapons tests in a dogged march toward its goal of a viable nuclear arsenal that can threaten the U.S. mainland.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who some believe has maneuvered the two leaders to this position, called it an “historical milestone” that will put the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula “really on track.”
But the White House on Friday seemed to pull back on the initial announcement, saying North Korea must meet “concrete and verifiable steps” before the meeting could take place.
Former Dayton Congressman Tony Hall, who has made several trips to North Korea, said a meeting between the two leaders would be hopeful after a barrage of insults.
“We were very close to being in a very, very touchy situation where both leaders were yelling back and fourth and calling each other names and that wasn’t a good situation,” said Hall, a Democrat. “The United States has nothing to lose by two leaders sitting down and talking about nuclear disarmament.”
RELATED: Experts divided on how to handle North Korea Still, there is plenty of skepticism about what the meeting might accomplish.
North Korea has made a habit of reaching out, after raising fears during previous crises, with offers of dialogue meant to win aid and concessions, experts point out. Some speculate that the North is trying to peel Washington away from its ally in 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.
Gary A. O’Connell, a retired chief scientist at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, said North Korea poses a “credible, growing” nuclear missile threat to the United States.
“Whether they have achieved everything they need to do is still unknown,” he said. “They’re certainly close, if not already there.”
The meeting would mark the first time a sitting American president has met with a North Korean leader, noted Laura M. Luehrmann, Wright State University political science professor and director of the program in international and comparative politics.
“This is a prestige bid by Kim — Kim is inviting Trump to demonstrate that Kim’s investment in nuclear weapons and missile capability has brought the U.S. to a position of treating Kim Jong Un as an equal,” she said in an email.
RELATED: Greenville native sent to North Korea on UN relief mission Luehrmann said North Korea signaling it would suspend nuclear and missile tests prior to the talks is a positive, but the path forward could be perilous.
“What if these talks fail?” she asked. “Are we then in a more dangerous situation?”
“What does North Korea mean by the suggestion that it will consider denuclearization as a condition for these talks?” she added. “It seems highly unlikely that (Kim) would surrender the nuclear weapons program that has brought him to this point. Trump’s acceptance of Kim’s invitation very well may be the right thing to do at this point — it is far better than the threats to ‘push the button’ that we had earlier in the year. But it is also a major gamble.”
Senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown praised the development but insisted that Pyongyang must eventually give up its nuclear weapons program.
Portman, R-Ohio, said the United States should continue its robust economic sanctions against North Korea “until North Korea changes course and ends its dangerous pursuit of nuclear weapons that threaten the United States and our allies.”
Brown, D-Ohio, called on Trump to “work with our allies to end North Korea’s nuclear program and I’m glad the sanctions Congress passed against North Korea helped bring Kim Jong-un to the table.”
Brown and Portman both supported a bill last year that imposed sanctions on North Korea for testing a long-range ballistic missile. The bill was approved following the death of Otto Warmbier of Wyoming, Ohio, after he had been held in a North Korean prison.
‘Not a breakthrough’
RELATED: Otto Warmbier remembered Donna Schlagheck, a retired Wright State professor, said Trump’s quick agreement to meet with the leader of the North Korean regime showed a disregard for decades of diplomatic procedures to reach a deal. She said she was “horrified” the meeting might deliver nothing to the United States.
“It’s not a breakthrough,” she said. “It’s another one of those moves out of left field. There is no diplomatic process of negotiations … to move the parties a little bit closer toward a common goal and there isn’t even a common goal.”
If the Trump administration is successful at getting North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons programs, it could be a boost for Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign, said Glen Duerr, associate professor of international students at Cedarville University. It would likely be compared to former President Barack Obama’s decision to kill or captured Osama Bin Laden, he said.
“It could be the key that unlocks the door to 2020 (for Trump),” said Duerr. “It would be hard for any Democratic nominee to say they have better foreign policy ideas.”
Dayton a target?
Duerr warned that a nuclear war with North Korea could put Dayton on a list of targets because of Wright-Patterson. Dayton would likely be on the list for a second or third wave of attacks, he said.
“This is a powerful strategic center for the middle of the United States, so there is the potential at least, Duerr said but added: “It doesn’t worry me to the point that I’m moving to the mountains or to Kentucky.”
Hall, former executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, said North Korea has few resources and about 80 percent of its population lives in hunger.
“They’re going to put on a big show they are a powerful country and all that, but the fact is they are a country that is starving and we need to realize that when we got to peace talks with them,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
The story so far: President Donald Trump accepted North Korea’s invitation for direct talks with Kim Jong Un, to be held by May.
What’s new: Local experts react with surprise and skepticism mixed with hope, warning what might happen if the talks fail.
What’s next: Details, including whether North Korea will meet conditions set by the White House for the talks.