Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

Trump says he would walk away if Kim summit isn’t ‘fruitful’

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. President Donald Trump voiced hopes Wednesday of a successful planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un but warned that he could “respectfully” walk away if it appeared the talks would not be “fruitful.”

Trump delivered his remarks during a news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the president’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, where he touted the progress made in grappling with the North Korean nuclear issue.

The odds of the U.S.-North Korean summit happening ticked up several notches a day earlier when he announced that his CIA chief had visited the isolated North for face-to-face talks with Kim earlier this month as part of planning for what would be the first-ever meeting of a sitting American president and North Korean leader.

“We’ve never been in a position like this with that regime, whether it’s father, grandfather, or son,” Trump said. “And I hope to have a very successful meeting. If we don’t think it’s going to be successful … we won’t have it. If I think that it’s a meeting that is not going to be fruitful, we’re not going to go. If the meeting, when I’m there, is not fruitful, I will respectfully leave the meeting, and we’ll continue what we’re doing or whatever it is that we’ll continue. But something will happen.

“I like always remaining flexible, and we’ll remain flexible here,” Trump added.

Trump on Wednesday confirmed that CIA Director Mike Pompeo had secretly met with Kim, praising the spy chief, who is also his nominee to be the next secretary of state, and calling the clandestine mission to Pyongyang a success.

“He just left North Korea. Had a great meeting with Kim Jong Un, and got along with him really well, really great,” Trump said. “He’s very smart but he gets along with people.”

Trump earlier tweeted that “details” of his summit with Kim were “being worked out now,” and said that five possible locations are being considered.

Pompeo — who could face a tough confirmation vote in the senate — is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the isolated nation since former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to Pyongyang in 2000. Media reports citing an unidentified White House official said Pompeo had traveled to the North Korean capital over Easter weekend, not “last week” as Trump said in a tweet.

J. Berkshire Miller, a senior visiting fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo, said that the Pompeo revelation publicly reconfirmed what many already knew — that the CIA and intelligence community has been taking the lead in preparations for the Kim-Trump summit.

“The revelation of Pompeo’s secret meeting with Kim Jong Un increases the probability that a summit will indeed occur next month or early June,” Miller said. “It also, however, tightens the net and wiggle room for Pyongyang, which surely would have preferred a less direct and more drawn-out approach to nuclear and missile negotiations.”

On Thursday, the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said a plenary meeting of the ruling party’s Central Committee will be held Friday to discuss “new stage” policy issues “in line with the demand of the important historic period.”

Observers said there was a possibility that the North could unveil a new policy line at the plenary session expressing its willingness to join denuclearization talks and its resolve to improve ties with the South, the U.S. and Japan.

During Abe’s visit, Trump also sought to reassure him of the pair’s close alliance as the president prepares for the historic summit with Kim Jong Un by June. Trump and Abe spent Wednesday morning golfing at one of Trump’s nearby courses in their latest show of “golf diplomacy.”

Tokyo has raised concerns that Washington might press Kim only on long-range missiles that could hit the mainland United States — and not on the short- and medium-range missiles that pose an immediate threat to Japan — when Trump and Kim discuss North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

At Wednesday’s news conference, Abe praised Trump for his support on the issue of the abductions by North Korean agents of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and ’80s.

Trump said it was clear from their talks that the abductee issue is “one of the truly most important things on Shinzo’s mind.” Trump said he wanted to see the “families reunited as soon as possible,” adding that the U.S. “will work very hard on that issue and we will work hard to try and bring those folks back — very, very hard.”

Pyongyang has acknowledged it abducted 13 Japanese, while Tokyo maintains North Korea abducted 17. Five have been returned to Japan. North Korea says eight others died and denies the remaining four entered its territory.

The U.S. itself is pushing for the release of three Americans.

On the North Korean denuclearization issue, Abe praised Trump’s leadership.

“The situation surrounding North Korea, due to the decisive decision by President Trump on the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit, is at a historical turning point,” he said.

Abe, who has been concerned over failed past attempts at dialogue with Pyongyang, said that “past mistakes should never be repeated.”

“On this point, President Trump and I were in full agreement,” he said.

“Just because North Korea is responding to dialogue, there should be no rewards,” Abe said. “‘Maximum pressure’ should be maintained and actual implementation of concrete actions toward denuclearization will be demanded.”

Still, the prime minister said that if the North takes “the right path” under 2002’s Japan-North Korea Pyongyang Declaration, “there could be a possible path to settle the unfortunate past and to normalize diplomatic relations.”

The Pompeo visit to North Korea came amid a flurry of diplomatic activity involving the U.S., Japan, China and the two Koreas, including news that Seoul was examining the prospect of replacing the armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War with a peace agreement.

The seemingly daily onslaught of developments on the Korean Peninsula have raised hopes of a breakthrough in persuading Pyongyang to rein in its nuclear and missile programs at the Kim-Trump summit and before that at a meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27.

Kim’s meeting next week with Moon is expected to focus on the denuclearization issue while also discussing a possible peace declaration.

Trump said Tuesday in Florida that the Kim-Moon summit could, with his “blessing,” explore a peace treaty to formally end the conflict.

“We are looking at the possibility of replacing the armistice regime on the Korean Peninsula with a peace regime,” a senior official with South Korea’s presidential Blue House was quoted as saying Wednesday.

“But this is not something we can do by ourselves. It needs close discussions with relevant parties, including North Korea.”

South Korea and a U.S.-led U.N. force are technically still at war with North Korea after the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The United Nations Command, Chinese forces and North Korea signed the 1953 truce, to which South Korea is not a party.

The April 27 North-South meeting will be just the third summit between leaders of the rival Koreas since the armistice was signed 65 years ago.

Key moments, including Kim and Moon’s first handshake, will be televised live, both sides agreed at working-level talks Wednesday, the Blue House said.

While Trump and Kim have not spoken directly, according to the White House, the U.S. president revealed Tuesday that there had been contact at “very high levels” to prepare for the historic meeting — an apparent reference to Pompeo’s secret visit.

Pompeo, who earlier this year expressed a desire to “separate” North Korea from its regime — an apparent allusion to regime change — told U.S. lawmakers considering his nomination as secretary of state last week that there was more room for diplomacy before considering military action.

Under the Trump administration-led “maximum pressure” campaign, Pyongyang has been slapped with some of the toughest international and unilateral sanctions it has ever faced.

Those sanctions came after months of soaring tensions as the North conducted its most powerful nuclear test and launched more than 20 missiles — including two intermediate-range weapons that flew over Japan and another long-range missile that experts say puts the whole of the United States in striking distance. With the test of that long-range missile in November, the North said it had “realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”

Media reports quoting U.S. officials have said that no decision has yet been made on a meeting venue, though Bloomberg News reported Wednesday that locations being discussed include Geneva and venues in Asia and Southeast Asia, it said, quoting a person familiar with the talks.

The source said the U.S. wasn’t considering Beijing, Pyongyang, Seoul or Panmunjom, the site of the Korean armistice signing in 1953.

The sudden talk of rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula has prompted a spate of meetings between leaders and officials from nations with vested interests in the nuclear issue.

Last month Kim made a surprise visit to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in what was believed to be the North Korean leader’s first trip outside his isolated nation’s borders since he succeeded his father in 2011.

Top Chinese officials have since traveled to Pyongyang amid mounting speculation Xi might make a reciprocal visit, including a report by CNN on Wednesday that said he is preparing to visit Pyongyang.

It would be the Chinese leader’s first official visit to North Korea since he came to power as head of the Chinese Communist Party in November 2012.

Citing an unidentified official with knowledge of the discussions, the report said the visit will happen “soon,” possibly after the Trump-Kim summit.